Film Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

Written by Jasper Harris

Red is a tricky colour. At least, when it comes to making films. It has more connotations than I can be bothered to list, but suffice to say, it has a massive amount of give, ranging between such behemoths as love, and death, and stretching across to danger and envy. It means anything and everything, and thus should be avoided at all costs unless handled by people who know what they are doing. 

Thankfully, Lynne Ramsay and her cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, really know what they are doing. From the giant, chaotic early shots of the festival aptly named ‘La Tomatina’, to the duller crimson of the lychee and the unapologetically loud jam sandwiches, (I know that they don’t immediately all seem to fit together, but trust me; they do), they have carefully planned and meticulously placed each instance of the impossibly difficult colour.

The film only exists within the sunken memories of Eva Khatchadourian, (Tilda Swinton), who, in the hands of a lesser actress may have come across as uncaring, or even abusive. But Swinton handles the material perfectly, and her performance, alongside Ezra Miller as the titular Kevin, brings a sense of empathy to two vastly flawed characters, and in doing so, allows the story to mean more than the one-dimensional fable that there is always a danger that this sort of film could become. 

There is no point in me outlining the story, because it would ruin everything the film so expertly does. It truly gives us the experience of inhabiting a broken mind, by telling and retelling moments of the story, out of chronological order, all the while continuing to make perfect sense, without ever seeming convoluted or to ambiguous. Each moment feels justified, related to the last, the next, and every other moment. This is not a story being told; this is a story being re-lived. 

And yet, there is a panic to the way the story unfolds and refolds itself. It will show you something, only to expect you to hold onto it until later, when the film will assign it immense meaning an hour and a half in. Of course, we do, and when the time comes, everything that the film has told us drop by drop finally hits us like a wave. 

Lynne Ramsay is a master of her craft and she knows it. She is an incredibly poetic filmmaker, who has the ability to tell us immense amounts of information about a situation, a relationship, or even a character’s motivations in a single glance to an object. She knows exactly what she wants people to see, and she, like the best, knows that telling your audience to add two and two, is always, always better than showing them four. 

To say that Ramsay expects us to work hard while watching ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ would be a gross understatement of the highest degree. This film is more like long division than basic maths. There are so many things that if you miss them, while it may not seem like you’ve missed too much, you’ll end up not truly being able to appreciate the genius of this film. It isn’t a problem, per se, but just an observation. You’ll need to be concentrating. 

A note on the subject matter: this film may deceive you by being rated a fifteen. Know that you should not watch it unless you are fairly certain that you can handle it. It is a dark, dark film, and much to its credit it handles it incredibly well, but all the same… This film is unapologetic in how much sadness it expects you to handle. All of it is the answer. All or nothing. This is the way of such stories. 

There is an unfortunate habit of fables and tales that teach us to be wary, in that they tend to paint in black and white. And by that I mean that they can have a very monochrome outlook on the way people act. Evil is evil and good is good, and nothing can stop those fundamental principles. ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ shows us that that notion is nonsense. 

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Jasper Harris

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