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22 October 2011

Mommie Dearest

There is, perhaps, even more red in Lynne Ramsay's new film We Need to Talk About Kevin than in The Sixth Sense. There is red in every scene and almost every shot: strawberry jam oozing out of a sandwich; the flashing red lights of a crime scene; red clothes; red furniture; red clothes; red paint. Unlike in The Sixth Sense, however, the red symbolizes guilt and ghosts from the past rather than [spoiler alert] ghosts of Bruce Willis and Keira Knightley.

We Need to talk About Kevin is an uneasy, uncomfortable film, riddled with the most irritating noises: shrieking babies, honking cars, lawnmowers, drilling, scraping nails. It is also uncomfortable because as in Lionel Shriver's book of the same name, on which the movie is based, there is an awful sense of foreboding. Something terrible has happened but at first, we don't know what. And we don't fully understand the extent of the Bad Thing until the film's ending.

In the book, Eva (played by Tilda Swinton in the movie) is writing letters to her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) from whom she is clearly estranged. In the letters, she reflects back on the formative years of their now teenage son Kevin (Ezra Miller) and because Eva is pretty self-involved, how much of Kevin's later choices are a reflection of her own parenting. In the movie, this is depicted through Eva's flashbacks, allowing for some potential unreliable narration, while she goes about a solitary existence, drinking red wine alone in her house, and shunned by others--middle-aged women smash her eggs in the supermarket and slap her in the street. Her house and car have been splattered with red paint and she spends a lot of the movie desperately trying to scrub away the paint from her house and her skin. The paint is, of course, a thinly veiled metaphor for her guilt.

In the flashbacks, we witness Kevin's difficult birth (the book makes more of a point of Eva's successful career as a travel book publisher, who loves her frequent adventures abroad and who resents having to give some of this up in order to bring up her son), and even more difficult childhood. He never stops screaming, he can talk but refuses to, and is clearly very intelligent but won't respond to Eva's attempts to draw him out. With his father, on the other hand, Kevin behaves much better, leaving Franklin (and us, given these flashbacks are from Eva's perspective) wondering how much of this is in Eva's head. When Kevin is about eight, Eva has a second child--a daughter, Celia, conceived without Franklin's knowledge. Less intelligent than Kevin but pretty, sweet and loving, Celia is the kind of child Eva wanted all along, but Eva's devotion to her daughter isolates her further from both her husband and her son.

Eva comes across as more sympathetic in the film than in the book, where she is very self-centred and overly ambitious. This is probably due, in part, to Swinton's sensitive, powerful portrayal but the fact that we, the audience, are so constantly exposed to the maddening noises like the screaming and the drilling, that we can understand what Eva is going through with Kevin--and how sleep-deprived she becomes. An incident in Kevin's childhood, when he is maybe seven or eight, only adds to Kevin's power over his mother and his ability to torment her. And although at the end of the film, when Eva asks him why he did what he did, he says he isn't really sure any more, we know that he did it all as revenge on the mother he has always hated--or whom, he perceives, has never loved him. Ultimately, through reliving the past, Eva is able to achieve some sense of catharsis, but it seems that despite her attempts to purge her guilt and gain absolution, she can't forgive herself or her son and she definitely can't forget.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a jarring, bleak film but it's also a fascinating portrait of a woman--a mother--in crisis. There is nothing light about it and songs that would normally be light-hearted, like Buddy Holly's Everyday and Wham's Last Christmas--only feel more unsettling, in context. Swinton is brilliant, as she often is, and Ezra Miller as the teenage Kevin was wonderfully menacing. Go and see it--but not if you're going on a date or, for that matter, if you want to have kids.

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