One should always be careful when deploying strong adjectives but I don’t think it’s too controversial to describe Lionel Shriver’s 2003 We Need To Talk About Kevin as searing. The book is written from the point of view of the mother of a teenager who has perpetrated a high school massacre and brilliantly distills a whole spectrum of uncomfortable and socially frowned upon feelings that the narrator has towards her chillingly blank and sociopathic son Kevin. It’s artfully structured as a series of letters addressed to the boy’s father, who appears blind to the warning signals that are gradually becoming clearer and clearer, and becomes more and more gripping as it builds towards a climax that includes some elements you can anticipate from the very start of the book and some that pull the rug out from you entirely. It’s one of the most harrowing things I’ve read recently, and one of the best.
Given the form of the novel, and the wordiness and occasional discursiveness of the highly articulate narrator Eva, a totally successful screen adaptation was always going to be hard to pull off, and Lynne Ramsay’s new film isn’t quite it, although it gets the unsettling tone spot on. Tilda Swinton is absolutely perfect casting as the nervy and rattled Eva, and she spends the entire running time looking pinched and stressed out, her occasional rictus smiles communicating anything but happiness. Ramsay directs a lot of her, and consequently our, attention towards a couple of striking visual motifs: again and again we see close-ups of foodstuffs being broken up and pummelled and ground disturbingly onto and into household surfaces, and again and again we’re treated to viscous red substances oozing across the screen – tomato juice, ink, jam and the paint that vigilantes use to vandalise Eva’s house. We can identify with Eva’s isolation both in her situation before her son commits his atrocity, when she spends much of her time rattling around in a huge, modern and characterless country house, and in the year or two after, when she’s living in reduced circumstances due to her son’s notoriety, and making regular and painfully awkward visits to the facility where he’s serving his sentence. Her lack of ease is underlined by the bursts of background noise that regularly seep into the soundtrack: a pneumatic drill, a lawnmower, the ominous clicking of a garden water sprinkler.
Where the film falls down a bit in my opinion is in its failure to really articulate the details of Eva’s growing disquiet and the very specific nature of her son’s dysfunction. There’s reams of instances in the book of the narrator describing how her efforts to convince her husband that their child’s behaviour is serious cause for concern are falling on deaf ears, and how the boy is actually highly intelligent, to the point of deliberately under-performing at school in order not to draw attention to himself, but there seem to be a shortage of equivalent scenes in the onscreen version. The massacre itself is meticulously and ingeniously planned and it’s a shame the film shies away from a full depiction of how coldblooded and organised Kevin is about it. And the incident involving his younger sister’s injury seems curiously downplayed – in the book, it’s highly traumatic, whereas in the film it seems almost glossed over.
Still, it can’t be denied that it could have been a whole lot worse and Ramsay deserves credit for her boldly arty touches and not resorting to voiceovers to paper the cracks. Swinton’s performance is entirely convincing, and Kevin himself is vividly brought to disturbingly Satanic life by Ezra Miller and a couple of young and unsmiling boys. Not exactly a feelgood film, but definitely worth a look.