Tilda Swinton never fails to impress audiences in anything she turns her hand to. Indeed, what can honestly be said about Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s riveting and utterly chilling book, We Need To Talk About Kevin, is that the role was written unquestionably for Swinton – or even the book’s character for that matter.
Shriver even quotes in the back of her book that the film adaptation is “well cast, beautifully shot and thematically loyal” to her novel. Any anomalies that arise from watching the film are purely subjective as a result of what you’ve already visualise while reading mother Eva’s (Swinton) story – and there are a few, perhaps, minor ones.
Travel journalist Eva never wanted to be a mother, certainly not to a boy who murders seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker and a teacher who tried to befriend him. Now, two years after Kevin’s horrific rampage, it’s time for her to come to terms with her teenage son’s actions, fearing she may have been partly responsible.
The story looks at the ultimate ‘nature verses nurture’ question; was Kevin born evil or was his upbringing a factor in his actions? Ramsay addresses this, but in a subliminal way, rather than focuses on it head on, as the book does through a series of letters by Eva to her absent husband. The opening shot perfectly captures the pre-mother, carefree nature of travel nut Eva, as Swinton wallows in happiness in a sea of crushed tomatoes at the La Tomatina festival in Buñol, Spain, that simultaneously symbolise the destruction and reminder of the colour red of blood that now dominates Eva’s every thought.
Swinton is spellbinding as she sleepwalks through her everyday existence after the night in question, punctured by moments of intense pain as she is left trying to cope. Ramsay also keeps her stunning cinematography deliberately disorientating and menacingly unsettling between past and present moments that blur into one to add to Swinton’s faultless performance. It’s perhaps no coincidence then that the parts of Ramsay’s interpretation that jar a little are the ‘clearer’ re-enactments of Kevin’s younger years.
Jasper Newell plays a challenging feature-film debut role as the younger Kevin. But it’s this part of the book about Kevin’s manipulative ways that plant the seeds of despair that is crucial and does not quite translate across as well or as terrifying, and that’s quite disappointing. Things aren’t helped by Newell’s comical schlock horror glares, like a latter-day Damien, and the script that should help cultivate a deep sense of foreboding, before being introduced to Ezra Miller’s Kevin, seems contrived.
That said Miller captures the cool, calculating character as well as can be expected – a little more apathy would have satisfied further. However, those who have not been exposed to the book will find Miller pitch-perfect in this, both in look and in action. Nevertheless, the pivotal dinner monologue given to his mother feels less curt and unnerving than it should.
Thankfully, Ramsay doesn’t recreate a grand ‘killing spree’ flashback, merely touching on the carnage caused throughout, then showing one iconic Kevin pose in the gym, and keeping things in a state of suspended disbelief and focused on Eva’s angle. The director visually nails the shocking, end domestic scene in the book, as well as the last mother-son prison meeting, with Miller giving an incredibly underplayed but potent glimpse of human emotion and fear in Kevin at the very end.
As a standalone film, this is one of the most chilling social thrillers out this year with some powerhouse performances from Swinton and Miller. The problems arise when personal interpretations of the meaning behind Eva’s words in the novel get in the way of enjoying what is before you on screen, and trying to separate the power of the written word from the spoken/unspoken one is tricky. Hence, fans of the book will naturally be divided, but, as Shriver says in her book, should not fear watching the film: They will agree on Swinton being the only actor perfect for the dynamic role of survivor Eva.