The Question That Has No Answer

Film review: We Need to Talk about Kevin (Director: Lynne Ramsay)

By Sascha Krieger

Red: It is the color of the Tomatina festival in the Spanish town of Buñol for which every year thousands of people  from all over the world gather only to throw tomatoes at each other. At the end of the day, rivers of red flow through the town as a result of this peaceful, crazy, silly spectacle. The start of the film sees Eva, an acclaimed travel writer in the middle of this harmless madness, eyes closed being carried on the hands of other enthusiasts. Lost, immersed in the moment, caught in the thoughtless, happy rapture of living. It is also the color of the paint enraged neighbors have splashed all over the facade of her house. The Eva living here all by herself is a beaten, defeated, scared, clueless woman who has no future and who might not even own her past. Between this lie almost two decades, a life lived for her children. When she wakes up seeing the red paints on her window, one child is dead, the other in prison. Left is a mother struggling to find out what happened.

It is a powerful, disturbing opening. The color red becomes the leitmotif of the film. It is the red of the lights of the ambulance and police cars on the day that changes everything, not only for Eva. And, ultimately, it is the color of the blood spilled at the hands of her own son. Throughout the film we see her trying to remove the paint from her house, leaving red marks on her hands, visible symbol of the guilt she feels but cannot explain, the guilt that keeps returning like the color on her hands. The red lights reflected in the car window as the bewildered Eva makes her way towards a scene she cannot expect to find, the barred red doors behind which the tragedy takes place, the blood, the paint, the tomatoes: all elements of the same stories, elements which do not seem to belong together just as the different parts of Eva’s life don’t become one, do not seem to make any sense. And over all of this the desire, no, the necessity to find meaning, the only chance to maybe be able to go on. Somehow.

We need to Talk about Kevinis, first and foremost, a film about a search: the quest to come to terms with what happens, to try and understand how it happened, how it came to this, a painful quest to find out one’s personal guilt. It is not only a film about this search: In its structure, its rhythm, its esthetics, the film is this search. We watch, we feel, we hear Eva’s process of dealing with the unthinkable, the unbearable. The flashbacks, the memories, the fluid sense of time in which past and present flow into one another, are inseparable, are born by this process, are this process. There is a sense of instability here, in the storytelling, the camera, the editing, which reflect the instability of the protagonist, of this woman who has lost everything, has been ostracized, is openly stared at and even attacked in public, who moves along like a zombie, bewildered, lost, more dead than alive.

This might be the best performance in Tilda Swinton’s career. Her face, stern, harsh, increasingly desperate, tells her story, it is the battlefield on which the tragedy happens. She carries the film from her hopeful beginnings all the way to the numbness, the paralysis which entraps her after the downfall. All the contradictions, the loose ends, the conflicting emotions which do not make any sense – they are here, in this face, this rigid body. This heightened state of confusion which has taken over her life – it can be felt, almost touched by the viewer. She has a major role in creating the stifling atmosphere of the film, an unsettling mixture of fear, incomprehension, desperation, confusion. At times the film has an almost dreamlike feel as Eva moves along in some sort of troubled trance. It return, harsher, colder, when Kevin embarks on his destructive mission. Perhaps this is her trying to picture it, trying to grasp what happened, perhaps all she has to do so is the logic, the mock reality of the dream.

Is she the victim or is she the one to blame? This is her question and as she tries to answer it, the focus moves towards her son Kevin, or rather their uneasy relationship. He was a strange child, apparently without affection for his mother, a psycho- or sociopath in the making, highly intelligent as well as manipulative, openly hostile to his mother and contemptuous towards others, maybe even himself. There is little development here, Ezra Miller portraits Kevin in an almost hermetic way, as something of a black box, inscrutable, inexplicable. Where do the contempt, the coldness, the hatred come from?

Eva has no answer and neither has the film. „There is no point. That’s the point“, Kevin says after being questioned by Eva when she discovers that he is collecting computer viruses as a hobby. We Need to Tak about Kevin does not try to explain why teenagers, or people in general, end up doing terrible things. There are countless questions but no answers. At the very end, in their final conversation, as Kevin faces his imminent eighteenth birthday and the transfer to an adult prison,there appears to be a tiny crack in his facade, in which something like fear, emotion, empathy might show. Ist there hope or is this an illusion, too? The film ends with the overriding question of „Why?“. „I used to think I knew“, Kevin answers, „but now I’m not so sure.“

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