We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) – Directed by Lynn Ramsay, starring Tilda Swinton

by Margaux Williamson


Kevin is a high school student who kills many of his classmates with a bow and arrow in a nightmarish lock-down at the local high school. The movie is mostly about his mother, Eva.

The movie is seductive and strange. Sometimes it seems like a regular indie-drama and sometimes it seems like a horror movie. Part of the narrative is told through non-sequential  flashbacks. These mostly focus on the relationship between Kevin and Eva. The scenes skip around from the morning of the killings to Kevin’s conception to the family’s breakfast table.

There is one scene with Eva participating in a tomato festival somewhere far away. It’s one of the few flashbacks where she is without her family. She’s alone, in a mob, covered, along with the rest of the mob, in the bloody mush of tomatoes. She looks euphoric. It’s a very unusual image – Eva covered in the red pulp, limp and being lifted by strangers. It suggests something sacred – or sinister. It echoes the high school massacre in colour and confusion.

The rest of the scenes take place after the massacre. They mostly involve Eva being villainized by herself and by her community for the horrendous crimes of her son. She doesn’t defend herself; she accepts the assumed punishment – straight to hell.

It still seems to be the most condoned form of misogyny to blame the mother for the sins and deficiencies of ourselves and others. And though it is becoming less fashionable to argue that nurture trumps nature, to defend Freud’s traditional psychotherapy, or to assume woman as the primary nurturers in a family, we, in the early 21st century audience, still understand that it would be outrageous if the mother tried to defend herself. We, and Eva, know there is absolutely no room for that.

So, Eva, ostracized, villainized and terrorized by her community, survives and lives and carries on.

The very exciting part of this movie is that instead of an eventual redemption offered by the arc of a traditional narrative, we are instead offered a more absolute redemption in the form of shifting perspective. It’s as though the director, Lynn Ramsay, managed to create a Gestalt-like optical illusion here in movie form.

In one moment, you are watching a intelligent indie-drama about a mother-son relationship gone terribly wrong; in another, you see a horror movie about a child born evil.

It’s not even that the movie moves back and forth between two different genres – it is just our own eyes deciding which way to see things at any particular moment. In either direction, the vision comes fully formed. The clues for both perspectives are in every scene: an ever-present bottle of wine next to Eva at the dinner table – the dinner table where Kevin gazes at his mother with sadistic eyes that he only lets her see.

As we watch the indie-drama, we see a mother who might have gotten some things wrong, or who might have some wrong things inside herself. As we watch the horror movie, we feel the thrill of the “bad seed” trope being used in the service of a reckless feminist fantasy – or, at least, a counter-misogynistic one: Some babies are just born bad, let us all marvel at the evil, let us remove our persistent gaze from the mother. Lynn Ramsay is the master of the bold and reckless feminist fantasy movie.

The scene of Eva alone at the tomato festival is an interesting one for these alternating visions. When you see the horror movie, you see a successful travel writer’s euphoric connection with the world outside the family – a scene far from trouble and pain.

When your eyes adjust to the indie-drama, you see a woman covered in red, engaged in a bizarre act of self-indulgence or abandon, or an act that maybe comes out of some need, small and twisted inside of her, that makes her seek such unusual forms of euphoria so far away from home; an act that foreshadows, in colour and perversity, her sons horrific crimes.

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