The colour red suffuses We Need to Talk About Kevin. Red paint is smeared across walls and car window screens, red jam oozes out of sandwiches, red ink trampled into carpets. Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) constantly wipes it from her skin and clothes. The symbolism is obvious, but endlessly effective: her life has been marred by a stain which won’t wash off.
The Colour Red
The chilling story unfolds in a wash of images which are rarely connected by dialogue or a clear chronology. We see a drained and hollow Eva trying to rebuild her life after an unspeakable tragedy, prompted at every turn to recall the events that have gone before. Once a glamorous and successful travel writer, she gave it all up to marry good-natured Franklin (John C. Reilly), and to give birth to their son, Kevin (Jasper Newell / Ezra Miller). Perhaps resenting the life she had lost – or perhaps simply because Kevin was a strange, sullen child – she never really bonded with him.
Warning: This article contains major plot spoilers
Through Eva’s eyes, we see fragments of his childhood and adolescence, every scene tinged with dread as it becomes clear where the story is heading. The vindictive child becomes a smirking teenager who runs rings around his gullible father, and taunts his sweet sister (Ashley Gerasimovich). His violent, sociopathic tendencies are apparent only to his mother, who begins to wonder if she is going mad. But then, days before his sixteenth birthday, Kevin takes the longbow that his father gave him for Christmas, and commits an atrocity that leaves the entire community reeling.
Now an outcast in the town that knows she bred a monster, Eva is left with only impossible questions for company. Was Kevin born evil? Or could the unthinkable be true – that his actions were, in some way, her fault?
The film, like Lionel Shriver’s award-winning novel upon which it is based, remains ambiguous. The book’s Eva is an unreliable narrator, and the film, too, filters everything through her perspective, playing with our perceptions. Her relationship with Kevin is portrayed as a battlefield where each struggles for power, perhaps more similar to the other than they care to acknowledge. That which has ‘gone wrong’ in their home is all the more potent for being difficult to pinpoint. The Khatchadourians outwardly appear to be the kind of picture-perfect family which Hollywood so often portrays. As such, John C. Reilly is cleverly cast – the goofy guy who would have been at home in a heart-warming comedy, but unaccountably finds himself in a very different sort of story.
This portrayal of Kevin’s family life is true to the reality of many school shooting incidents. Studies have noted that there is no standard profile, with plenty of perpetrators coming from intact, middle-class families like the Khatchadourians. We Need to Talk About Kevin hints at things which other films in the last decade (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) have made more explicit: that desperation and violence can lurk even beneath the surface of well-heeled suburbia.
It’s the American Dream gone horribly sour, producing not a paradise in which everybody is fulfilled and free, but a generation plagued by emptiness. Kevin, despite having grown up with every material comfort, is unable to see the point of his existence. As far as he is concerned, fame for fame’s sake is the only imaginable good – to be one of society’s ‘watched’, rather than one of its ‘watchers’. It’s a twisted version of the same myth currently being played out on a hundred reality TV shows.
Society has decayed so far, Kevin argues, that even the people we watch on television seem to spend their time watching television. "And what are they watching?" he asks triumphantly. "People like me." It’s a self-referential moment that turns the accusation back round on the audience. We, too, are watching Kevin, and have chosen to do so. For reasons we’d rather not explore, we’re drawn to the violent, the shocking, the sick and the scandalous. It’s not only Kevin who has a darkness at the heart of his personality.
The Last Word
The film features a surreal, eerie sequence in which Eva drives her car through the night on Halloween, clearly filled with genuine terror by the costumed skeletons and ghouls outside her windows. It’s a comment, perhaps, on culture’s disengagement from the real nature of evil. Eva knows what evil looks like, and has had her whole existence infected by its consequences, but the world around offers no meaningful framework for dealing with it. Her son has done something unforgivable and, by extension, she is unforgivable too. She sleepwalks through each day, utterly isolated and paralysed by guilt. Evil has had the last word, both on her life and on Kevin’s.
Or has it? There are hints – small, but precious in such a grim story – that there is something else at work, too. In the final scenes, we see Eva preparing a room in her dilapidated house, ironing Kevin’s T-shirts and making his bed for the distant day when he is let out of prison. It’s a gesture of love: a tough, determined, decisive love that exists not because Kevin deserves it, or because she feels like offering it, but simply because he is her son.
Things do not resolve in any conventional sense, and this is perhaps fitting, given the weight of what has happened. Like anyone coming face-to-face with evil, Eva can only ask the age-old question: Why? "I used to think I knew", Kevin replies, and for the first time we see a flicker of uncertainty upon his face. "Now I’m not so sure." This final-act intrusion of conscience is the closest thing to a redemptive moment that he is given. There are no easy answers, but merely in the suggestion that Kevin is beginning to realise the enormity of what he has done, we are offered hope.
This is a hope that we can only have if evil is not meaningless, in the sense that Kevin once believed all of life to be meaningless. When he ‘knew’ why he had chosen to kill, it was because chaos and destruction made as much sense as anything in a meaningless universe. But we do not live in such a universe. However much we try, we can’t pretend that ‘evil’ is too strong a word for some of the things we see in the world, and in ourselves. We experience conscience and consequence because we are part of a reality that is ultimately opposed to evil. And this, though Kevin may still be far from knowing it, is good news.
Keywords: Human nature, evil, fame, conscience, hope
Director: Lynne Ramsey
Screenplay: Lynne Ramsey and Rory Stewart Kinnear, based on the book by Lionel Shriver
Starring: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller
Distributor: Artificial Eye (UK); Oscilloscope Pictures (USA)
Cinema Release Date: 21 October 2011 (UK); 27 January 2012 (USA)
Certificate: R (USA); 15 (UK) Contains strong language, once very strong, strong sex & sexualised nudity
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© 2011 Damaris Trust