Film discussion

I Am the Context: Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin

Lately, there has been a lot we need to talk about. School shootings have become more and more prevalent. Students are taking matters into their own hands, demonstrating walk-outs and marching on Congress with pressing urgency to reform gun control. The mental stability of legal gun owners is once again a heated argument, often swaying the debate between guns and the health system, never quite finding a common ground. In the midst of this momentum borne out of grief, rage, and horror, I watched a movie about a young man and his context within a world that only thought it wanted him. A life that is as fragmented as the world he is brought into; one that looks on as he consumes the broken. Now more than ever, we need to talk about this film.

Optioned from a 2003 novel of the same name by award winning author Lionel Shriver back in 2011, We Need to Talk About Kevin recounts the years leading up to a tragic high school incident through folding narratives that show troubled teen Kevin’s (played by Ezra Miller) upbringing and the aftermath his mother Eva (Tilda Swinton), is subjected to. In treating the structure of the film as interplay between memory and the present, director Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher) forces us to examine not the incident at the core of the film – we’ll get to that a little bit later – but the mother-and-son-as victims at the heart of the cataclysmic event. The film’s observational prowess allows us to witness, not just how things came to be but the toll of their actions, placing our titular character within a context that can only be discovered through the eyes of a mother.

Many, especially within the socially conscious immediacy of today’s news over slain school children, may have a difficult time accepting the word “victim” here when applied to such a monster. I use the label not to wipe away the guilt, or overshadow the atrocities that these people commit, and certainly not in order to provide rhyme or reason for such actions. I use it only to discuss context within a lens that we are often unaware of, or restricted to see. Within the framework Ramsay provides, such barriers that prohibit us from being established in the proceedings are removed.

This is particularly true in the glimpses of Eva’s life we see in the very beginning, as she lays blissfully extended, hoisted above a crowd of participants on the tomato strewn streets of Spain during La Tomatina. Bodies, awash in red, pack the streets in droves, imparting a sense of claustrophobia that feels liberating for Eva, whose success as a travel writer highlights a spirit infused with wanderlust. For Eva, her world is cramped yet freeing, chaotic yet serene, one whose home in New York City is cluttered with books and travelogues that feel like part of her. We observe this because we exist on the inside of her world, where we see not only what she has given up, but what she has obtained in its place.

We see Eva’s life as she reveals her various layers to us, each more fragmented than the last. When Eva and husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) decide to move from the confines of their city apartment and into a spacious home in the suburbs where Kevin can safely grow up, Eva feels torn from her life of clamor and limited space. It was cramped, but it was hers. We understand that it isn’t just her home she is torn from, but her life. Gone are the shelves of books, the rows of records and the indigenous masks that line the walls, all representative of the life she’s traveled. In their place are open walls of nothing, save a few enlarged black and white photos of Kevin. Through Ramsay’s images – a paint splattered room that was once hers, a rain splashed windshield, a living room that is now cluttered with Kevin’s playthings – we understand that everything in Eva’s world has been given up after childbirth.

The only one that doesn’t is Kevin.

It’s this contextual space that Kevin occupies that is incredibly important to the life we observe. He cries incessantly in his crib, disrupting Eva’s seemingly soothing pattern of noise that comes with living in a city. She feels it’s deliberately done in a way that signifies, like an air horn before a bomb, the imminent destruction of her life. As time passes, cries for affection – real, diffused affection, turns to solemn stares as Eva attempts, albeit frustratingly, to reach out to Kevin. She passes a red ball to him, who neither reacts nor acts out, causing Eva to speculate what’s wrong with him, not what’s wrong with her. He doesn’t talk, despite being of age, and unlike the city, it’s this silence that disturbs the core of Eva, who feels disconnected from her own child.

We follow both through past and present in various cuts that show time passing and repeating. Eva now lives in a quaint little house by herself that has been vandalized with red paint by neighbors that spew vitriol and leer, as if she’s responsible for what has happened. And within the context of those caught in tragedies crosshairs, perhaps she is, though Ramsay never quite makes that judgement call.

For a majority of the film, Eva’s house remains splattered in this red paint that works in contrast with the red of the tomatoes that covered every inch of her body. One signified passion and freedom, a connection to the outside world that she explored and logged. The other, the blood of those killed, a disconnection from the locals that blame her, and the confinement caused by her son. And like the months of confinement placed upon Eva during her pregnancy with Kevin, it’s something she neither wants nor can escape, because like her periodic visits to the prison, she can’t seem to sever the ties that bind her to her own child.

This is explored further in the fact that we never see Eva wash off the red of the festival that day, as if refusing to completely remove that sense of belonging to the world that defined her life and lifestyle; this is as much a part of her as the skin she lives in. And when Kevin vandalizes the room she has put together for herself, filled with old maps and far away tokens, one where it “looks like your personality”, she never attempts to scrub it from her life because it doesn’t cover her present, but the past she left behind; a newly created reminder of who to blame for the imprisonment of herself. Within the context of her place in the world and what defined her, Kevin isn’t just her son, but her tormentor and captor.

Except this isn’t just another evil child cliché infused into an unconventional horror film, where the atrocities of its youth are inflicted without any sense of remorse. No, We Need to Talk About Kevin takes a microscope to the demon seed trope, examining a child born into a life of animosity and neglect, where seemingly evil acts stem from a provocation of contempt. Kevin knows neither of Eva’s life or the things she has lost. He knows the only thing a child truly knows, and that is to consume. Even when she visits Kevin in prison, he methodically bites his nails, placing the scraps on the table in front of him, as if to show Eva the fragmented pieces of himself. This is a teen that is as much a monster for his acts as he is a victim of others, one who in the end, no longer knows why he did it.

As Kevin locks his classmates in his school’s gymnasium, consuming them one by one with a bow and arrow – an instrument of his upbringing, he demonstrates through tragedy that sometimes, we need to talk about context.

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