We Need To Talk About Kevin

Art & Culture

This has to be an early contender for Feel Bad Film of the year – or even the decade. Not since We Need To Talk About Se7en have I come out of a film quite so depressed. It’s a well made film, no question, but  it is a relentlessly gloomy downer.

A quick back track. In 2003 Lionel Shriver (a woman, as it happens, despite the name) had a novel published called We Need To Talk About Kevin. It was a huge success, both critically and commercially. The book is a series of letters from a woman to her husband, in which we gradually discover why her life has been so thoroughly trashed. It soon becomes clear – and I’m not giving anything away here – that the source of all her problems is and was her son Kevin.

It is in the nature of best sellers that someone somewhere makes, or tries to make them into a film. However, clearly you need to change the structure of a book which is composed of letters. And so director Lynne Ramsay and co-scriptwriter Rory Kinnear have adopted a different approach. We first meet Eva (Tilda Swinton) in her current life after the terrible events which will in due course be revealed (but not by me here). She is living alone, and is the object of unrelenting and ferocious public hate. In flashbacks, we see her with husband Franklin (John C Reilly), and then with baby Kevin, and later another child, a daughter.

The editing chops up the sequential timeline of the narrative so that it is only at the end of the film that we realise the full horror of what has happened, although the how is never matched by the why. And that is one of my criticisms of the novel as well as the film. It’s not exactly a secret that Kevin is not the most use friendly child of all time. He cries continuously as a baby, is a sulky and unresponsive toddler, and – for reasons that are never explained – seems to have a pathological hatred for his mother and a desire to ruin her life. Is this the place to mention that Lionel Shriver has no children? I know that doesn’t disqualify her from writing about parenthood, but if you’re going to present a being whose every thought and action is malicious from Day One, then it does some have some bearing on the matter.

For me, I simply don’t believe in a baby being born a sociopath. Call me naive and sheltered, but it doesn’t ring true. Even more problematic is that what could be suggested implicitly in a book, becomes, as always, much more full frontal in a film. On the page, we might believe that Eva exaggerates or even imagines the degree of Kevin’s vileness; on screen, we are left in no doubt that he is a monster. And in fact, if you look at the film (and book) with a degree of perspective, it is a horror movie for the middle classes. No one is wearing a hockey mask, or seeing dead people, but Kevin belongs to the same stable as the girl in The Exorcist and the boy in Omen. He’s a fantasy, but in the case of WNTTAK, he’s a fantasy inserted into ever.


Philip Raby

Front Row Films

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