Upon finishing Lionel Shriver’s compelling novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, there is little else you can do aside from stare at the last page for a good twenty minutes. Either that, or watch paint dry, a kettle boil, or in my case after the page-gazing, watch a snake eat and slowly digest a small hairless mouse. It’s 500 pages reads as a slow denouement, unravelling a tragic final discovery, and leaving the reader as limp as a wet flannel. Like the book, Lynne Ramsay’s masterful adaptation of this ‘unfilmable’ novel also leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, and I was chastised by my wife for wandering aimlessly in a sullen stupor after leaving the HMV Curzon cinema in Wimbledon yesterday. Rarely does a film (or book) have this impact on me, but the characters are so vivid, the story so complete, and the ending so tragic that little can be done to overcome the sense of disquiet.
The novel is written in letters from Eva Khatchadourian (Kevin’s mum) to her estranged husband (and father of Kevin) Franklin. The letters are done in semi-chronological order, explaining the events and emotions surrounding Kevin’s birth and upbringing in their middle class home. The letters remain one-way throughout the novel, and thus the descriptions are from the biased view of Eva, leaving some questions and events up for interpretation – was Kevin really as malicious as Eva supposed from such a young age? Was Franklin always so unsupportive and one-minded when it came to his wife’s critique of their son? That being said, Eva is certainly the person with the most face time with Kevin, and for those who know the premise for the story [SPOILER], Kevin is a Columbine-esque high-school murderer, and the plot unfolds as we are told the events that proceeded that fateful Thursday when he locked a group of talented peers and a teacher inside the gymnasium and systematically shot each of them with a bow and arrow. Essentially, there is no other person we would want to hear the story from – Franklin is just a little too wet behind the ears and sanctimonious for the reality-checks, Kevin himself would never be so useful as to explain any reasoning behind his motives, and Kevin’s sister Celia is too young, naïve and adoring of her brother to recall any dark observations of him – so Eva is the closest we can get to what actually happened during those 15 years of hell.
Her story is told through a series of small occurrences and events that solidify her belief that their son is evil, and hates her (and everyone else). Kevin’s split personality – well-behaved with Dad; little buggar with Mum – forces a rift between the parents which becomes too wide to bridge, and his spite is manifested in subtle and careful acts: convincing a girl to scratch off all her eczema (a nasty scene not featured in the film), screaming and crying all day with Mum but smiling lovingly with Dad, requiring nappies until eight years old, learning the alphabet and counting privately to devoid his mother the accomplishment of teaching him, ruining her treasured items, blinding his sister in one eye…the list can go on. Throughout all of this, Shriver is asking a big question: are people born inherently evil or does their World shape them? A question which is never truly answered, but for which everyone has their own views after reading the book or seeing the film.
In keeping with the structure of the novel, Ramsay’s film uses flashbacks and a non-linear narrative to tell the tale, and it works so very well and in keeping with Shriver’s narrative – which, as expected, shows Eva, the narrator, remembering different tidbits from different times, fragmenting the plot to great effect – her story should not be a smooth crescendo.
There is an element of psychological horror in the adaptation which didn’t seem as prevalent in the novel. Like the brilliant Black Swan there are fleeting shots of squeamish images – a neat line of nail clippings, pulverised crispy foods, pus-covered swabs, paint being razor-scraped off glass – and these all contribute to the uneasiness and horror of the story.
The casting is second-to-none, and a worthy shout-out to the casting directors is needed: the chameleon-like Tilda Swinton plays Eva with aplomb (Best Actress surely?), John C. Reilly as the all-American location scout father Franklin and newcomer Ezra Miller as the creepy and meticulous Kevin – a shoe-in for a plethora of Best Newcomer awards. Swinton absolutely cements her credibility as a leading lady for the first time, after a series of fantastic supporting roles in the likes of The Deep End, The Limits of Control, Michael Clayton, Burn After Reading and Constantine. Her acting in We Need to Talk About Kevin is mesmerising, a finely-tuned balance between utter despair and sheer hatred. At no point does she overact or risk believability, something which Swinton can proudly claim of her entire career in film. John C. Reilly is his usual brilliant self, and it’s refreshing to see him in a serious film after a spatter of comedies. Ezra Miller is bedazzling as Kevin – a character whom you can not takes your eyes from, it’s a pleasure to watch he and Swinton sharing the same screen even if the scene itself is (always) far from enjoyable. He nails Kevin’s character perfectly – a meticulous balance between blasé and spiteful.
By the time we come to that final set-piece set in the school gymnasium, told in a chronological mish-mash, the audience is horrifyingly aware of what is about to come, and Kevin’s final cock-mouthed grin as the police arrest him in front of a sea of traumatised parents and students is quite something to behold – an evil so utterly terrifying, that I challenge anyone who says they didn’t envisage themselves inside that gym with that psychopath or better, what they would do if they got their hands on him. And even if devoid of feeling any kind of empathy for his victims at that point, the moments that follow as Eva flees the scene to go home is the most harrowing cinema I’ve seen for a long time as she returns to a shocking discovery. In the book, this final reveal is something of a twist answering numerous questions and explaining the structure.
A truly brilliant novel, and a worthy adaptation, everyone should be talking about Kevin.