While watching We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay’s film adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s bestselling novel, I was reminded specifically of two films. The first was Peter Greenaway’s Drowning By Numbers (1987), an eerie black comedy about three sisters who all decide to drown their husbands. The second, improbably, was John Woo’s Blackjack, a failed pilot starring Dolph Lundgren as a bodyguard by the name of Jack Devlin who – and I swear I’m not making this up – happens to be petrified of the colour white and goes berserk if exposed to it.
So far, so tangential, but allow me to explain. Greenaway, ever the formal jester, inserted the numbers 1-100 into hidden crevices of his frame and invited the audience to participate in a counting game as the film progressed; a playful adjunct to the meat of his story. Ramsay, it seems, is such a big fan of the colour red and all it symbolises that she decided to put as much of it in her film as possible. So, very much like Greenaway asks us to in his film, I began, semi-unconsciously, to play a similar game: spot the red object.
We Need To Talk About Kevin opens with a scene at a tomato festival, in which Eva (Tilda Swinton), the mother of the titular monster, gets herself absolutely covered in the fruity (or is it vegetable-y?) stuff. It’s on her hands and everything! Turns out that tomatoes, when squashed, look like blood. And then, in the next scene, there’s red paint all over her house. And her car. Turns out that red paint also looks like blood. And it’s on her hands and everything! Then, there’s a red kettle! A stop sign! A bowl! A teddy bear etc… After a while of playing this game, however, I grew tired and ultimately, at the sight of red, became increasingly like Blackjack‘s Jack Devlin upon spying of a pint of milk: utterly distressed and eager to find the exit.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Ramsay overdoes the symbolism in her film to a blistering, absolutely maddening degree. You will hear and read all sorts of things about how We Need To Talk About Kevin is a “sumptuous banquet for the eyes”, but the visual overload – of which the heightened use of red is just the beginning – is not just irritating, it’s hugely damaging to the film; Ramsay is never able to free herself fully from the self-imposed straitjacket of artful composition, and consequently her film cannot breathe or evolve. For example, a potentially devastating scene in which Kevin defaces Eva’s painstakingly arranged map wallpaper with paint is composed like a Jackson Pollock masterwork, meaning that Kevin’s feral wildness is paradoxically undercut by Ramsay’s unceasing quest for pictorial beauty. There are nauseatingly fetishistic close-ups of food being destroyed or consumed and mouths and lips and, well, it all just gets a bit much. Consider Nicolas Roeg’s legendarily disquieting Don’t Look Now, which used a singular flash of red sparingly, yet consistently thematically, to subtly devastating effect.
As suggested by critic Matthew Sweet on BBC’s ‘The Review Show’, We Need To Talk About Kevin is essentially an “arthouse horror”, and it’s a shame to report that Ramsay’s film crashes between a number of stools, hamstrung by its visual beauty and also its central conceit: that Kevin, rather than being autistic or anything (a suggestion pooh-poohed by a doctor) is simply a total shit who behaves appallingly – demonically, even – from day one. Because Kevin is so utterly awful, and Ramsey is so preoccupied with imagery, there’s no room for sensible insight into issues like post-natal depression or child psychology. It’s safe to say that Eva isn’t the greatest mother in the world, so on some level the film could be taken as a dark comedy about the pains of motherhood, but Ramsey seems to have no interest in pursuing this line of thought either. The marketing campaign, leading with the lurid tagline “Mummy’s Little Monster” is effectively selling the horror film that We Need To Talk About Kevin might have been, rather than the muddled one it is.
Despite its flaws, there are reasons to recommend We Need To Talk About Kevin. There’s a clever scene in which Kevin acidically deconstructs the bland conventions of a conversation between disinterested mother and disaffected son. For once, in trusting dialogue rather than simply lush visuals, Ramsey provides us with a bracing glimpse of the fractures in their dynamic. It’s a jarringly effective moment that leaves you wanting more of its sort. The film is at its strongest in the well-observed scenes which deal with Eva’s painful reintegration into society; especially her attempts to get back into employment following the central event of the film (I won’t spoil it in case you’re the one remaining person who doesn’t know), and an excruciating office party set to the strains of Wham!’s evergreen ‘Last Christmas’.
Tilda Swinton as the unsympathetic Eva is convincing throughout, although John C. Reilly – a terrific actor with perhaps the least versatile of faces – is likeable but miscast; his thick-set everyman features and jovial nature clashing horribly with Swinton’s icy, poised androgyny. Ezra Miller as the eponymous evildoer certainly looks the part with his snake hips, curling lips and shock of black hair, but is frustratingly one-note.
Sadly, We Need To Talk About Kevin, to summon the ghost of Terence Trent D’Arby, ends up neither fish nor flesh. It’s what happens when a talented director becomes obsessed with creating pretty pictures and neglects to establish a proper tone; a missed opportunity. Luckily for fans of evil children, Richard Donner made The Omen 35 years ago, and, for those of you whose interested is piqued, John Woo’s Blackjack is (probably) available in all good bargain bins now.