I saw ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ weeks ago; it still has not left me. I have also managed to read the book by Lionel Shriver in that time and, by comparison, the two seem to tell distinctly different, though the same, stories.
The film, directed by Lynne Ramsay, surmises the ordeal of Eva Katchadourian (played perfectly by Tilda Swinton); from the birth of her son, Kevin (Ezra Miller and his bizarre fringe), to his eventual incarceration for the slaughter of his high-school peers, and Eva’s difficulty in restoring normality to her life after the fact. It only very briefly touches on the pre-Kevin days told in the novel: heady years of travel, heady careerism and adult freedom with her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly), and the reasons for which she eventually decided to bear the son who would cause her so much anguish.
The book delves deep (as it would, being a 468-page tale), via Eva’s letters to Franklin, into her initial worry of her lack of maternal desire; her decision to finally attempt to create a family life around her bustling travel-writing career and often seat-of-the-pants lifestyle is seemingly erroneous from the start. Shriver explores a wealth of debate in which Eva argues for and against having children; she can’t actually stand their company, but she wants some company nonetheless.
She wants to keep her jet-setting life, but also to create one more. The notion of a child is treated more like a challenge, a first-time trip, rather than a concrete decision on life-long motherhood. Much of her process is affected by her love for her husband; she wants a family for him; she wants a family to be there when he isn’t; she wants a son in his image.
Much ado has been made over Reilly’s casting in the film, though I found his performance to be lovely. I had grown so tired of the- admittedly and sometimes amusing- Derp Reilly, hopping at Will Ferrell’s ankles and spilling food down his front. Reilly is at his finest in extremes; the acid-brain surrealism of his Steve Brule (if I ever felt guilty about my pleasures, that character might be one of mine) or his heartbreaking, imperfect men like Mister Cellophane, Amos Hart (‘Chicago’).
In fact, aside from the appearance of Franklin in the novel (he reads more like a lumberjack; broad-shouldered, blonde, pectorals), Reilly portrays him to a tee: all-American, obliging, oblivious- or at least disbelieving- of his monstrous son’s capabilities and truly double-sided nature. It is perverse, from the reader or viewer perspective, how differently Franklin sees his son to that of our own, or Kevin’s peers’, or Eva’s, eyes.
The book is littered with political and societal references that the movie dismisses; not to any major detriment, as I found the Gore-Bush election backdrop only serves as distraction from the emotional core and drive of the plot. Eva peppers her letters with stories of similar student slaughter rampages, assumedly, to give Kevin’s gross act some social context.
The film covers all the major events that push Eva further away from her angry young boy; refusing to- or at least appearing to refuse- potty train, deliberately hiding new knowledge and learning, the odd disappearance of sister Celia’s beloved pet…it is far beyond normal pubescent cheekiness and, by the time Kevin is but fourteen, he is speaking and carrying himself like a seasoned psychopath.
Whatever her failings as a mother, one feels for Eva, as one would for a woman so torn apart by the fruit of her own womb. Initial coldness receding, she attempts closeness to her wayward son and is constantly pushed away. The film omits many horrifying incidents of Kevin’s seemingly innate psychosis, making the book a more painful but nonetheless beautiful story.
Frustration will be normal, too, when watching the film; Eva’s treatment at the hands of supermarket patrons, co-workers, trick or treaters and, indeed, herself, is seemingly understandable but heartbreaking. Of course, after the tragedy, everyone needed someone to blame and, in the absence of Kevin, locked in the pen, Eva makes a prime target. Of course, as his birth mother, she is held responsible for the mess Kevin leaves behind, despite showing the upmost remorse and desperation simply to move on with her sorry life.
Upon the outset, the film looks like a constant downward spiral in which Eva is perpetually punished for having a child without “really wanting to”, in the manner of which “most people” do, but the story is no more uncommon than you might see every other day: a classic post-natal depression Eva resents her already spiteful son (seemingly from day dot he is a spidery, malicious lad) and the child, in his strained and angsty years, lashes out. The only difference being the size and effect of his actions.
Words: Lisa Dib