We Need to Talk About Kevin (Oscilloscope Pictures, R)

film kevin smI’m happy to report that We Need to Talk About Kevin is a resounding success.

film kevin lg

I’m a big fan of Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, and when it was announced that Lynne Ramsay was making a film adaptation of it, I was excited. Ramsay’s only made two feature films so far, 1999’s Ratcatcher and 2002’s Morvern Callar, and both are excellent—particularly Morvern Callar, which is even better than the novel by Alan Warner upon which it is based. So what would she be able to do with a novel that is already great? (It’s maybe worth mentioning at this point that Ramsay was long in development to direct a film adaptation of Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones, but that never quite worked out. I feel safe in saying that if it had, the end result surely would have been exponentially better than the film Peter Jackson wound up making from the same source material.)

And I’m happy to report that We Need to Talk About Kevin is a resounding success. It at once stays true to the source material but bears Ramsay’s unmistakable directorial stamp. The novel seems like a good candidate for a poor screenplay adaptation—among other things, the whole novel is a series of letters written from Eva, the mother of a young terror named Kevin, to her estranged husband/Kevin’s father Franklin; this practically begs for poor, lazy voiceover narration and/or a messy letter-writing device in the film. Second, the book is relentlessly unpleasant, and it seems like it would be hard not to water down in the adaptation process. Ramsay (who adapted the screenplay herself, with Rory Kinnear) is able to maintain the constant, squirm-inducing nausea of the book, and she works with an economy of images that packs most of the information contained in the book into a shorthand visual language (alongside her cool tendency to juxtapose unlikely seeming music with images that don’t match). No voice over and no letter-writing devices anywhere to be found—in fact, not much talking at all; Tilda Swinton, who stars as Eva in the film version, has joked that no one does much talking about Kevin in the movie. On this front, part of me can’t help but wonder if the movie would be noticeably more difficult to follow for those who hadn’t read the book first, but based on people I’ve talked to who’ve seen it, this doesn’t seem to be a problem.

The basic premise of the book is that Eva and Franklin (John C. Reilly in the film) are happily married and very much in love, but Franklin pressures Eva into getting pregnant when she doesn’t really want to. She does, thereby giving birth to Kevin, who is real-world evil and goes on to ruin just about everyone’s lives. When I say “real-world evil,” I don’t mean he’s any sort of grown-up Rosemary’s Baby or Damien or anything; he’s evil in the way that people who actually exist are evil, in an uncomfortably believable way. It’s helped here by two of the actors who portray him—Rock Duer as toddler-aged Kevin and Ezra Miller (of the upcoming The Perks of Being a Wallflower) as a teenager (there’s also a version of Kevin in between toddler and teenager, Jasper Newell, but he’s not half as believable as either Duer or Miller). Miller, in particular, couldn’t be stronger, and whoever was responsible for his casting deserves a pat on the back. Much has been written about the physical similarity he bears to the otherworldly-looking Swinton, but beyond that he does indeed look like an older version of Duer and Newell, and he (Miller) is appropriately menacing besides. Funny that Miller’s best-known film work prior to this is in the 2008 indie Afterschool, another relentlessly grim film in which he plays the victim instead of the perpetrator.

And that points to another trick of the book that Ramsay manages to keep intact in the film—depending on your disposition, you might think that Kevin was either born evil and poor Eva has to suffer his existence, or that Kevin was made evil by the cold and heartless Eva, who never really wanted him in the first place. Maybe this is achieved through Ramsay’s drifty, expressionistic methods of filming. Sometimes she veers toward being outright experimental, and needless to say, her work winds up being pretty open to interpretation. | Pete Timmermann

 

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