Nothing gets a horror fan more ticked off than a director with airs claiming her new film isn’t really horror but actually a character study exploring the deep psychological recesses of blah blah blah. In the case of We Need to Talk About Kevin director Lynne Ramsay, you’ve got a fancy Scot arthouse filmmaker (Morvern Callar) big on New Wave affect who probably doesn’t think she’s making a horror movie. Lionel Shriver, author of the book the film is based upon, probably thought that, by mentioning horror movies frequently, she could escape the fact that she was blending multiple horror narratives to make one very good horror novel that wasn’t really just a genre effort.
Put the in-denial text and film together, multiply by the accumulated subtexts, carry over the pretenses and, um, wait – is this an algebra equation?
It’s at least a tripartite genre denial, but that’s just one of a panoply of self-imposed avoidances that define the annoyingly interesting We Need to Talk to Kevin. It’s a film where there’s very little to be even slightly certain about, and not in a satisfying, Don’t Look Now/Nicholas Roeg way.
Ramsay’s film fascinates like Goldfrapp’s radical, downcast remix of Lady Gaga’s “Judas” fascinates: as a remix more than an adaptation. Goldfrapp took Gaga’s pop-club banger, cut it to half time and deconstructed it to almost unrecognizable effect. It was creepy, scary, strange, way cool, but not a touch on the original, and is ultimately mainly interesting in relation to its source. In a similar way, Kevin is big on its own abstractions and its relation to the original text, but mainly, I think back on it going, “Why?”
Like the book, Ramsay’s film is about motherhood as living hell – as Job times pi – as suffered by Eva (Tilda Swinton). But Ramsay’s dumped Shriver’s brilliant, flux-y mix of liberalism-critique-meets-Alien-meets-Frankenstein-meets-The Omen-meets-absolution (whew!) in favor of, well, I’ve no idea, really.
Instead, in Goldfrappian manner, Ramsay cuts and pastes bits and pieces of Shriver’s Eva – the cold yuppie, terrified victim, asshole liberal, terrified boomer, Accepting Woman of Eternal Suffering (there are really old blues songs to hammer this in) – and insists that Swinton perform all of them at disconnected junctures. The result is what it might feel like flipping through two twins’ life-long photo album with no captions, with years cut out in between, the pages flipping randomly, and nobody around to tell you what’s what. Could lead to serious WTF. Either that, or Ramsay wants Swinton to “do” archetypes instead of characters. Or something.
But Ramsay’s a fantastic maker of cinema. As much as I was baffled/dazzled by her super-skilled disjointedness, color-coded segues (tomato red never worked so hard) and brilliant dreamtime flow, I was still happy to go with it at the time. But still.
Here, let me tell the original story so some of this starts to make some sense.
In the book, which is told as a series of letters to her all-American/Republican husband Franklin (played in the film by John C. Reilly as a generic Dad), we meet Eva, a pushing-40, self-centered, unbearably obnoxious Manhattan woman who probably reads Mary Gaitskill, Paul Bowles and Jane Austen in equal measure and occasionally sounds like all of them. Her empire of travel books has made her wealthy but also wanting. Maybe a baby is the answer!
Against the background of the 2000 presidential recount nightmare and the end of the Clinton prosperity age (all deleted in Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear’s screenplay), we watch Eva grow aghast as her pregnant body bloats and she name-checks horror films like Alien and Mimic as references for motherhood. It’s a dark joke that the baby turns out to be another sort of monster – a joke Ramsay leaves out, because Ramsay doesn’t do funny. It’s an art-film thing.
When that baby is born, he refuses to breastfeed. The scene’s replayed in the film but there’s no sadness or horror since there’s not really any build-up of body horror, because Ramsay is busy using edits that make you go, “Cool edits,” to super-foreshadow what will happen years later.
Which is – no spoiler – that the grown-up child (the Kevin of the title, of course) will stage a Columbine-esque massacre in his high school, locking up a bunch of kids in a gym and shooting arrows into their bodies. This is something the film fragments in Goldfrappian style because, well, that’s what the movie does: it fragments.
The book, it flashes back and forth in ways that are motivated by theme, emotion and event. You know, literary shit. Neat literary shit that allows Eva to be a Cronenbergian post-feminist Doctor Frankenstein as her misconceived creation, as always in these archetypal tales, becomes a mess – angry, unable to communicate, howling, increasingly sociopathic, and not 4 years old yet.
In the book, the tone and mode and Eva herself flip on a dime, and everything becomes The Omen as Kevin becomes more terrifyingly, more unbeatably Evil (people keep citing The Bad Seed as parallel but I think this kid is far more lowercase hell-sent, as in an inexplicable brand of utter secular badness.) The book’s Kevin likes nothing, hates existing, loves hurting another Frankenstein project that turns out poorly – a weak, pitiable sister named Celia – and in an unbelievably disturbing bit of barely off-stage Grand Guignol, pours Liquid Plumr into her eye, burning the socket dry. But hey, it’s not horror or anything.
And yes, I’m almost sighing as I note that Ramsay, knowing how horrific this business of the missing eye is, starts abstracting it in the first reel of the film in the hope, one assumes, that we’ll be so inured to the concept that by the time Kevin eyes that bottle of Plumr, the worst the audience will feel is an ironic titter. Or something.
Every few chapters, Eva meets post-massacre Kevin (played in the film by Ezra Miller), now an inmate at a youth correctional facility. These are the film’s most engaging moments, but not for the reasons Ramsay would like. They show that all the cool filmmaking in the world is kind of no big deal when compared to a still camera recording two fantastic actors working at the top of their games.
The book’s grandest achievement is how it both accuses Eva as complicit in making a monster and then forgives her; how it takes a thoroughly unlikeable woman and evolves her into someone with a hard self-awareness we have to respect. The film? Ultimately, we’re back to the remix analogy, but without Goldfrapp’s unity of purpose – even if there isn’t much of one.
Two revealing examples of Ramsay’s enforced vagueness:
There’s a shot – a single shot! – where we see Eva standing in front of a large staff of people in some kind of office; I assume it’s her travel book agency. People who’ve not read the book will, of course, have no idea why this shot is in the film. Why rob Eva of her accomplishment, of becoming an entrepreneur, of the life she could have had if she hadn’t had this demon baby? Is this an anti-capitalist gesture? Beats me.
Apropos of nothing and never once followed through, we get the Eva of Shriver’s book – the obnoxious, stereotypical, America-bashing Manhattan liberal – taking Kevin on a trip to a miniature golf course and cawing through an anti-populist rant. If you read the book, this makes sense. I would think that for casual filmgoers, though, this would seem like she was suffering a Truthdig-influenced sort of Tourette’s. Meaningless and, if you excuse the pun, out of left field.
Deal is, I always thought the New Wave was about deleting excess syntax so you could get to the heart of cinema. Ramsay uses some of its disjunctive tropes brilliantly so she never has to commit to anything but Swinton’s pursed grimace.
When she’s not doing that, she loves to have her camera sit still so we can watch Swinton do nothing, and then moves her camera a great deal when Swinton’s doing lots, so that we don’t know for certain what’s actually going on in the agitated frame. It’s like creating secrets, which, I suppose, could be a way of externalizing what Eva is doing with herself.
But see? Here we are, trying to fill in Ramsay’s gaps. Maybe that’s her idea, or mode, or style, or whatever. We Need to Talk About Kevin should perhaps be more accurately titled We Need to Talk About Ramsay. And here we are.
Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. His column "Grey Matters" runs every week at Press Play. To read another piece about Drive, with analysis of common themes and images in all of Refn's films, click here.