Read this note: Normally I’m pretty light on spoilers, but this movie’s been out a while and the most interesting parts of it require the full picture to discuss, so this review is riddled with spoilers. Many of them are things that probably wouldn’t spoil the movie for anyone, but they do extend right up to the ending, so considered yourself forewarned.
It wasn’t very long into We Need To Talk About Kevin, the latest film from director Lynne Ramsay, that I wondered whether or not that title is misleading. Kevin concerns the story of a mother, Eve (Tilda Swinton), and how she copes with the aftermath of murders committed by her teenaged son Kevin (Ezra Miller). But as much as Kevin dominates the movie that carries his name, I wonder to myself whether or not it would be more appropriate to ‘Talk About Eve’.
We meet Eve in the middle of some massive Italian tomato festival, shoved into a mass of teeming bodies, throwing tomatoes and drenched in them like they’re all covered in blood from some ritual slaughter. Eve is a travel writer, and in her travels she met Franklin (John C. Reilly), and their whirlwind romance ended with her pregnant. From the beginning, however, Eve suspects there’s something off about her son. He simply doesn’t act like a normal child, and his spiteful and suspicious behavior only intensifies as he grows older.
Or does it? Kevin is told from the present time, Eve haggard and haunted, stumbling through a rundown house full of half-eaten plates nobody cleared away and bottles of pills. She’s a broken woman, as far away from the tidy glamour of her big house and plush job we see in the past. She’s also a marked woman, the townsfolk almost all hostile towards her for what her son has done. Much of the story, then, is told through flashbacks as Eve tries to piece together why this horrible thing happened from the scraps of memory.
The entire film runs as flashbacks layered on top of each other. To try to detangle it and provide the narrative chronologically would miss the point. The story isn’t in the tale, but in the telling. Events association in her mind and on the screen, some only half-remembered and presented in fuzzy tilt-shift focus. Others, lengthy sequences, take on as much weight as the nightmare reality Eve drifts through in her present day. But what quickly becomes clear is that what we’re seeing is more the truth through her eyes than any sort of reality that we could invest in fully.
From the beginning, Eve seems uncertain what to do with the infant she now has. Her life, glamorous and world-spanning, has reduced to being a mother. She holds her screaming baby a dog that might bite, uncertain what to do to calm it. In the end, she just lets it scream, going so far as to stand in front of jackhammers to dry to drown out the sound. It’s that early sequence, how perfectly set up its subjectivity is, that sets the stage. Babies cry, but for Eve it’s nearly apocalyptic. Be it through post-partum depression or some deeper misinterpretation of the world, Eve’s memory is not to be trusted.
This only becomes more pronounced as we see Kevin grow into a stoic, moody toddler. Eve tries to turn one room of their giant mansion of a house into her own, only to have Kevin in a single phone call’s time splatter paint everywhere. How could he be so malicious? Never mind that every child at one point writes on the walls, or that Franklin seems to be unbothered by this, pointing out that it isn’t that big of a deal. Yet we saw the room, splatters of red paint like blood over the dozens of maps Eve put up to remind herself of what she had before she had a child. Did Kevin really deface the room in the way she remembers it? If she hated his contribution so much, why did she keep it well into Kevin’s teenage years, the walls fading into a wallpapered piece of art.
Much of Kevin plays out in similar fashion. If you want to see it that everything Eve remembers is accurate, then you have an Omen-style examination of how a woman reacts to evil when it comes from her blood. But if you question the places where memory seems most exaggerated, most subjective, it becomes a story of a woman trying to look for (and sometimes construct out of nothing) context for a horrific thing that happened. Kevin did a monstrous thing, to be sure, but are we really supposed to believe that he was an evil toddler who shat his pants to torment his mother?
Even when we get to the long-coming moment at the end of the film, where we see Kevin go to his school and murder any number of people, the truth is dodgy. It seems like the obvious result of the memories we’ve seen, but everyone seems shocked when it happens. Eve, hearing of the tragedy at the school, leaves work to push through the crowd, concerned that her son was hurt. A far cry from the woman who was convinced not 15 minutes earlier that he had intentionally murdered his sister’s pet and maimed her. Her actions don’t even gel with her elaborately constructed narrative.
Wherever the truth lies, or wherever you decide to believe it sits, the story told is one that relies heavily on Swinton and Miller to pull off. Eve is a woman who is seemingly willing to endure any sort of suffering, from a child she obviously hates (and only rarely, often poorly, tries to understand) to suffering the curses and even physical violence of the parents of Kevin’s school-massacre victims. She visits Kevin over and over in prison, long stretches of awkward silence. She washes blood splashed on her porch one morning throughout the film, an endless laborious penance paid for a wrong she perceives herself to have done. But is that obvious symbolic gesture even real? It’s not far removed from Lady Macbeth, struggling endlessly to wash phantom blood from her hands.
Miller, on the other hand, plays Kevin with the two-faced swagger of someone who is bound to be a psychopath or a celebrity. He has a knowing charisma that swings from threatening to almost endearing at times. He’s presented as a threat, to be sure, a dark copy of Swinton in hairstyle and even physical profile, slim and lethal with a bow he constantly practices with in the back yard. Yet when other people are around, he seems to act normal. He teases his little sister, being a typically jerky 15 year old big brother, but nobody seems to recognize it as threatening except Eve. Kevin seems fascinated with her, a mother that is in some ways very like him and thus will never understand him. He seems troubled, but only rarely the kind of troubled where you’d see the tragedy of the film coming. It’s never played that on-the-nose.
The final answer to this puzzle of memory is impossible to determine, a thing left to the viewer. On the second anniversary of Kevin’s massacre, Eve visits him in prison. Gone is the sharp eyed, handsome-yet-slimy teenager of Eve’s endless echoes of memory. Kevin is pale, head-shaven, his hair pockmarked with what can only be dozens of prison scars. He seems withdrawn but emotionally there in a way Eve never is. This scared kid, on the cusp of turning 18, looks nothing like the Kevin we’ve seen all movie. Where did he come from?
In this last moment, before Kevin is taken to an adult prison, Eve asks the question she’s been waiting two years to ask: “Why?” Kevin can’t even tell her, because it long since stopped making sense even to him. A far cry from the bragging kid who entered prison, talking about how he did what he did to make a name for himself. This new Kevin, seen only here, seems more human than ever, more than his stunned mother. She’s spent the entire two years destroying herself trying to cut apart her life and answer that question, and she’ll never know. Some things, especially the most awful things, tragedies born out of madness and depression, can never be known. We can only guess, looking carefully, trying to judge the evidence.
But not every question has a tidy answer, and few lives have neat reasons for going the way they do. We Need To Talk About Kevin embraces that mystery, the existential puzzle as old as time itself, its concerns less on the truth of violent teenagers and more on the complicated relationship between our present and our past, one always warping the other, the endless bad relationship run off the rails.