Of all the films I watched last year, We Need to Talk About Kevin proved to be my favorite in the horror genre. Some might challenge that label: the director, Lynne Ramsey, never helmed a slasher flick or monster movie, but instead displayed a unique aesthetic with her debut film, Ratcatcher, which portrays a young Scottish boy, striving to escape his gritty existence in 1970’s urban Glasgow (see my overview of the film here). Nevertheless, both Ratcatcher and Ramsey’s second feature-length, Morvern Callar, both deal in dark themes of death and existential crisis, despite their “art house” credentials, with both films’ primary protagonists’ coping with a violent death through most of (if not the entire) film.
We Need to Talk About Kevin, however, deals with death of a different sort. Whereas Morvern Callar starts with the aftermath of the title character’s boyfriend’s suicide, and Ratcatcher’s James struggles to process the accidental drowning of a young friend, Kevin focuses upon Eva Katchadourian (played brilliantly by Tilda Swinton), a formerly vibrant travel writer reduced to a hollow shell of her former self. Through a series of situations in the present and flashbacks to the past, we learn that Eva’s son, Kevin of the title, committed a terrible act that continues to haunt her in the present.
We learn that Kevin challenged Eva as a mother from the very beginning. As a baby, Kevin seems to cry uncontrollably in her presence alone:
As he grows older, his hostility becomes more overt: he resists toilet training, glaring at Eva with great intensity while intentionally defecating just after being changed. In this particular incident, Eva loses it, handling Kevin roughly and accidentally breaking his arm. Kevin uses the incident to manipulate Eva, reminding her about the injury when she initially refuses to take him to a toy store. Eva relents, knowing Kevin could easily tell his father about the real cause of his broken arm (he lied to to his dad about the incident, presumably to gain leverage over his mother). We then see Kevin in his teens, continuing the same pattern of defiance.
Kevin could be a case study in violent psychopathy. Just prior to seeing Kevin, I read Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, which humorously details the history of psychopathy as a diagnosis. Individuals suffering from psychopathy fail to feel any sense of empathy or genuine emotional connection, even with their closest relatives. Instead, a psychopath sees such relationships in opportunistic terms, manipulating those around him for his own gain. Nevertheless, psychopaths often exhibit a kind of magnetic charisma that can be mesmerizing to those who are unaware of the duplicitous nature of the act (see also Martha Stout‘s The Sociopath Next Door). Throughout Kevin, the title character illustrates these characteristics, simultaneous charming his father while at the same time playing games with his mother.
All the while, Ramsey and Director of Photography, Seamus McGarvey, shoot the film beautifully. From the very first shot of Eva at La Tomatina Festival in Buñol, Spain, red dominates the mise en scene. The Blog Fishmuffins of Doom nicely summarizes Kevin and illustrates the use of red in this nice series of screenshots:
As these stills show, the film uses red in a variety of contexts. Red literally covers Eva as she revels in the experience of a tomato fight in the film’s first shot. It’s also the color of the paint that Kevin splatters all over her map-papered office walls. In short, red represents Eva’s passions as much as Kevin’s resentment of those desires. It also casts a haunting glow over the film’s present, in which Eva copes with the aftermath of her son’s violence. Red, then, is the color of guilt.
This guilt makes Kevin so compelling as a portrayal of mothering a psychopath. The film shows Eva at every turn struggling with choices that many professional-class mothers must make: whether to continue a career or forego it, whether to live a metropolitan life or go suburban, whether to have an additional child or focus on the one you have. At each turn, Eva makes the conventional choice in spite of her own desires, but still faces her son’s ire. At every turn, Kevin plays upon Eva’s guilt to evade punishment for his own bad behavior. Eva alone recognizes her son’s true nature, but fails to take action because she feels responsible for it.
Kevin, then, is less about the horror of Kevin’s final violent act and more about the burdens placed on mothers in contemporary society. Kevin’s psychopathy merely brings these tensions to light more dramatically than a typical family drama, but in doing so defies the tendency to easily resolve such conflicts.
In this way, the filmmakers of Kevin use the generic elements of horror along with sophisticated cinematography and fine performances to portray the complexity of mother-child relationships in contemporary, middle-class households, to devastating effect.