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film review: we need to talk about kevin

If you’re looking for a film to scare yourself out of ever having kids you’ve found it. Tilda Swinton plays Eva, a woman struggling to raise the sullen son she isn’t sure she wanted. Played by Rock Duer, Jasper Newell and eventually Ezra Miller, Kevin is an increasingly menacing presence in a family that is otherwise happy enough. While Kevin is rude and manipulative around his mother, to his father, Franklin (played by John C Reilly), he is responsive and polite. Eva’s worst fears are realised when, just days before his 16th birthday, Kevin is responsible for a bloody attack on several schoolmates.

The story is told through fragmented flashbacks which are interspersed with snippets of a linear present day. We follow Eva as she deals with the aftermath of her son’s actions, simultaneously experiencing the events that led to them. Now living alone, she’s as haunted by happy memories as she is by unhappy ones. She’s abused in the street by the parents of her son’s victims and confronted by the survivors. Yet despite her struggles, Eva continues to visit her standoffish offspring in prison. We Need to Talk About Kevin is essentially the story of Eva’s quest for answers. Throughout the film she interrogates her memories, her son and herself for blame.

This is a highly emotive film. There’s not a great deal of dialogue, but this is replaced by a flood of other narrative devices. The effect of this is that we don’t get a great deal of the characters’ voices – instead we very vividly experience the emotions of Eva. In this sense the filmmaking is masterful. Every little thing in every single frame works to give the audience an empathetic experience. The impact of this is particularly pronounced when the image on the screen jars with the mood of the music and camerawork. It’s clear that this is explicitly Eva’s perspective we’re getting – her fear, her agitation, her joy. But it’s never her thoughts, never her reasoning.

Despite the effective storytelling, there are parts of the film that are a little overdone. While the motif of red is unnerving, there are instances where it becomes ham-fisted. Multiple scenes of Eva scrubbing red paint from the front of her house, her car and at one point her face offer an obvious and unimaginative symbolism. Despite this, these scenes remain unnerving. Likewise Kevin’s character is just a little too sinister in each of his incarnations. That blank brown stare seems over the top. Despite this Eva and Kevin’s strained relationship is portrayed as a two way street. The few moments where Kevin identifies with his mother’s difficulty connecting to him, hint at something real and vulnerable. Eva herself acknowledges some of her reactions aren’t entirely justified. The question of nature versus nurture is definitely raised here. However the line between the two could have been more blurred. For the most part Eva comes across as a flawed human being, but Kevin comes across as a monster.

In the end, the film is careful not to lay the blame. In an early scene, Franklin and Kevin are playing Nintendo and Kevin shouts excitedly for his father’s character to die. Yet there seems nothing really sinister about the boy’s behaviour aside from what we know in hindsight. Not every child who plays violent video games will become dangerous. Not every unplanned or unwanted child is troubled and not every troubled child will become a mass murderer. No parent is perfect. Not every imperfect parent will raise a Kevin.

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