You get a certain texture from a book written as a series of letters from one character to another. First, you get a strong sense of the character and how she perceives herself. Secondly, you get only her side of the story.
It’s hard to capture that sense of character on film unless you use voice over, and sometimes that seems lazy or intrusive. Still, something – anything – could have been done about We Need To Talk About Kevin, a film which reveals none of the nuance of its somewhat delicate subject matter and source material; a film which renders what was a true product of its time into a timeless jumble that veers between finely acted and merely over the top unpleasant.
Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) chooses to live in a town that shuns her. Almost two years before the film begins, her son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), committed a series of murders at his high school. Her new, lonesome life is interspersed with brief glimpses of the times before she had Kevin, and extended scenes from his upbringing and her tumultuous marriage.
Whatever one may feel about the content of the novel, it was undeniably excellently structured; Lionel Shriver proved herself to be a master of the slow reveal. It is therefore surprising when Lynne Ramsay lays so many of her cards on the table practically before the film has even started. Facts that take a good half – and then seventy five percent – of the book to come out are in the second scene.
Shocking reveals are rendered too obvious by the fact that they have to appear on the screen before us. Too much is telegraphed because somethings simply can’t be hidden from our eyes by Eva like they could be when she was in control of the prose.
It could argued that the original novel featured content not strictly necessary for the form of letters from a woman to her estranged husband; she’s recounting her life and he presumably knows all of it. Of course, it’s a form of therapy, as much for herself as for him. Swinton’s Eva has no such outlet. She’s living from day to day, with no real inner life except endless recall of the times before her life was irrevocably ruined by her lousy son. The boundaries are blurred to the extent that you have to wait a while to figure out which timezone you’re watching, with Eva existing along a flat continuum of misery. No room is made for the argument that Eva was so much happier before she had Kevin.
We get the absolutely vital impression that she is capable of love, and the film makes both a very poor case for her culpability in Kevin’s crime – the unreliable narrator rears its head again – and for people blaming her for it. The novel is logical, the film is more of a tone and texture piece which chooses to leave out certain vital pieces of exposition and to gloss over others.
What the film gets most right is the casting of Kevin, cut from the same mould as Damien. A more satanic kid you’re unlikely to find in any of the three age groups recommended. Film being what it is, Kevin’s reign of terror is presented not as a campaign of small and petty evils punctuated by grand moments of malevolence, but rather sixteen unrelenting years of sadistic treatment of his mother. I’m not asking for a balanced portrayal of the boy; what people seem to forget is that there is no denying that he did what he did. Kevin’s evil may be excessive, but sometimes that’s exactly what evil is. The obviousness of the fact makes one wish Eva would break more than just his arm; audiences will at least want to punch Ezra Miller in the face.
Still, something is missing from this film. The soundtrack is strange, and although the score is by Jonny Greenwood, who made such an amazing hash of Norwegian Wood, I can’t pretend to remember what it sounded like. John C. Reilly must be happy to be acting in real movies again, but he’s such a weird fit for the character that was presented on the printed page that he consequently doesn’t make much of a mark on the screen. If Ramsay wanted Eva’s life to be consumed by Kevin, she could have presented it another way. Swinton anchors the movie, but the very nature of an anchor renders the film inert.
We Need To Talk About Kevin is a film severely hurt by the impact of the novel that came before it. It’s impossible to give a purely objective take because the source material is so affecting that this movie can’t help but live in its shadow. People who haven’t read it range from those behind me who were were expecting “a slasher film”, and my friends who saw something compelling in it but recognised it was lacking something. We Need To Talk About Kevin is an odd film, and an oppressive one. Its distinctive style is likely to win it fans, insofar as anyone could be considered a fan of this sort of story, but it left me feeling almost as cold and distant as Eva herself.