Dewey Cox! That’s what someone yelled out to John C. Reilly before he gave the opening address before We Need to Talk About Kevin. “You might be a little disappointed” was the only way he could acknowledge the person before sitting in the middle of the crowd for the film to start.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is based on the novel of the same name written by Lionel Shriver. It’s an amazing piece of literature, though one that I thought would be resistant of cinematic translation. It’s incredibly dense and verbose, to the point that a visual filmmaker like Lynne Ramsay may have trouble structuring a narrative that would not be straightforward nor on-the-nose. That was my main concern when walking into the film; could Ramsay maintain the book’s grueling sense of anguish without adhering to problems in structure, especially if she is to keep the book’s twist intact. To put it bluntly, she does more with the material than I ever thought possible.
For those unfamiliar with the novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a series of letters written from a grieving wife to her husband as she recounts a violent high school shooting. There is no mystery to it; Kevin committed the crime and his mother contends with the event two years later. It’s an incredibly evocative novel that obviously has its polarizing audience – I suspect Ramsay’s film will have a similar polarizing effect.
What Ramsay realizes from the onset is that the structure of Shriver’s novel is one based on nostalgia and memory. As the main character is writing letters, there’s an issue of how to accept her as a narrator in accounting the tumultuous details of her strained motherhood and ailing marriage. Ramsay wisely bypasses what could have been a very dialogue and voiceover-heavy approach by going in the opposite direction – We Need to Talk About Kevin becomes a lesson in restraint and visual acuity, wherein meaning is derived from a quiet ruminating.
The film opens with a gush of red. Eva (Tilda Swinton) is participating in the Tomatina event in Spain. The sight is amazing; both in its physicality and the visual we get from it. But as the scene continues, there’s a seamless juxtaposition from the roaring of the crowd to screaming. Not screaming from the crowd, but one of terror. We get tiny cuts to what seems to be the outside of a school, sirens whirring. The visual palette shifts effortlessly from the red beacon light of a police car to the Tomatina and back again.
The opening sequence is an incredible exercise in astute direction, visual design, editing, and sound editing/mixing. Ramsay maintains this frenzied pace for an incredible amount of time before succumbing to introducing a more conventional narrative, but even then, her kaleidoscopic method of bringing together the past and present is anything but conventional.
There’s a fear in which Ramsay addresses in the film – a fear of motherhood, a fear of immediacy, and a fear of loss. Loss in the sense of losing a love and losing the things that can make you happy. The glow of nostalgia that emanates from Eva and her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) making love is lost upon the arrival of Kevin (played in three stages by Rock Duer, Jasper Newell, and Ezra Miller). We Need to Talk About Kevin, both as a novel and a film, serves to deconstruct the notion of what it means to be a mother and the difficulty in which one can allocate blame for the actions of others. Ramsay’s approach is far more subtle, less clear, but just as viscerally engaging. It’s a film that does not let up psychologically, hooks you in immediately and refuses to let go. It’s a film constructed as a memory, one that works as such, and one that has the bravery to see itself through. It’s the best film of 2011.