“To this day, I’m winging it,” declared Oscar winner Tilda Swinton at a Q&A following a recent screening of “We Need To Talk About Kevin” in New York City, referencing her lack of proper training as an actor. While it is a truthful exclamation, it’s ultimately a modest one; maybe a more educated actor can indulge in name-brand techniques and methods, but her naturalistic allure combined with her generally compelling presence add a unique element to any film she’s a part of.
Such is the case for ‘Kevin,’ the belated return of “Morvern Caller” and almost-“The Lovely Bones” filmmaker Lynne Ramsay. Immersing deep into the mind of a mother (Eva) and her acidic relationship with her son (Kevin, played by Ezra Miller), Ramsay’s adaptation of the Lionel Shriver book has little to do with the actual, tragic incident around which the film orbits and more to do with its emotional after-effect and the nature of responsibility, mother-hood, and memory. Swinton takes a rather unlikable character and humanizes her, trucking on in a volatile world while trying to make sense of both the past and the present. It’s a portrayal that runs the risk of being terribly self-pitying or full of maudlin melodrama — but this is something neither the director or actor are interested in, opting to instead explore the complex nature of mind and perspective. “The film was always going to be about atmosphere and moments much more than it was ever going to be about traditional narrative,” the “I Am Love” thespian explained. “We were looking into numbness and unspeakableness — what is it that she cannot stop chewing on? It’s not really about truth at all, it’s really about the inside of somebody’s mind and the phantasmagoria that lives there. Who knows how much of it is true at all?”
But it wasn’t the subjective point of view that reeled her in. What mostly enticed her was a certain facet of motherhood that never gets talked about. “As far as I’m concerned, Shriver was looking at something that I don’t think anyone’s really looked at before: maternal instinct is not inevitable. You can go through all that gestation and child birth and look at that baby and it just won’t take. I have a very close friend who has the nerve to be honest about it. She has four kids, three of them she really digs, and one of them seriously makes her flesh crawl when he touches her.” The audience let out a collective gasp. “It’s a chemical business, you know. It’s the luck of the draw,” she shrugged, driving home that it’s something out of our control.
On the surface of things, Eva and Kevin are constantly battling with one another, and it’s only in a single scene that they actually share a flat-out loving moment. However, their ugly behavior is consistent in both of them; it’s something they have in common. Swinton believes this is actually a reflection of Eva’s character. “When he becomes as misanthropic and vile as he does, the worst thing is not that he’s really exotic and foreign, it’s that he’s so like her. All that violence and such has come out of her.” To back up their similarities, the “Julia” actress stated that she copied the presence of Ezra Miller, who took most of his cues from the toddler that played Kevin as a wee lad. “As far as the tone of the character, we all followed the youngest of the Kevins – Rocky Duer – who was an amazing three year old and was so excited to make that puss on his face. And he set the mug, and I just copied Ezra, the way in which he moved and walked.” And it’s their relationship that ultimately causes Eva to change. As Ramsay dips in and out among various points in time, it’s easy to see the difference between Eva before and after her son’s murder spree. Kevin’s vile act has terrible consequences, but in a different way, his mother is much more relatable in these scenes. “He kind of exorcises her in many aspects, and in a sick way, she only really becomes a proper mother to him after he gets incarcerated.”
Swinton closed things off by going full circle, hitting back on the topic that most interested her. This time, though, she seemed to have a positive spin on it. “I keep saying that this is a love story. It’s boy gets mom. Not only their love story, but it’s about the business of love; the work of it. The mother’s task is to look after the child and nurture them until they can look after themselves, and if they have the love for them it’s much easier. The job of showing up and doing the loving without feeling loving is really an interesting subject in itself. It’s a sacrifice…which is something beautiful in itself.”
“We Need To Talk About Kevin” opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 9th. It goes into wider release on January 27.