Not all women feel that they’re born to be mothers. They’re told that once they’ve had their first child, it will all simply fall into place; they will instinctively have a connection to this being that’s been in their womb for 9 months. They will be somehow be inseparable and they will love their child by default. But is that always the case?
Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin was written as a series of confessional letters written from the narrator (Eva, as played by a haunted Tilda Swinton) to her estranged/ex-husband (John C Reilly) as she deals with the aftermath of their son’s massacre of his high school. Long considered to be un-filmable, director Lynn Ramsay (Morvern Callar) has instead taken an abstract approach to the story, rushing between scenes of the past and present as Eva struggles with the consequences of her son’s actions. Recalling her nightmarish experience in raising him, we see that she is not a natural mother: in an early scene, incapable of comforting her wailing baby, she pushes his pram onto a noisy street to drown out his crying. Her efforts to connect with her child look increasingly futile and as Kevin matures into a teenager (played by the very creepy Ezra Miller), he is shown as a vindictive boy who lives to torture his mother. There is no doubt that this boy we see on screen is a full blown psychopath, casually turning his father against Eva. Whether this is intended to be a literal version of the story or merely Eva’s subjective recollection is never addressed. Is she trying to justify her place in the story, absorbing the guilt or absolving herself from the blame? Can she be held responsible? Are killers born or made?
We Need to Talk About Kevin is not a film that asserts its own particular thesis on motherhood or mental health: it poses a lot of questions and like most tragedies, it cannot afford itself the luxury of a cathartic ending.
Lynn Ramsay’s film is a very bold adaptation, taking what was essentially a series of narrations and making a film that’s defined by its silences and uneasy half-conversations. She establishes a number of seemingly unconnected visual motifs, often recalling them late in the film to chilling effect. Her film is a phenomenally affecting work that left us with a sense of discomfort long after it finished. We’re not trying to discourage you from watching this, but if you’re thinking of starting a family in the immediate future, you may want to give this one a pass.