The first two shots alone of We Need to Talk About Kevin are enough to make it abundantly clear that we’re in the hands of a master filmmaker, one who having taken nine years between her second feature, Morvern Callar (2002) and this, her third, has been away from our cinema screens for far too long. The opening slow push onto a billowing curtain is the first of multiple images to return throughout, foreboding omens that build in intensity with each subsequent recurrence, portentous fragments that form a collage of disquietude, underscored with sounds at once familiar but unidentifiable, non-diegetic shreds that conceal their source, simmering underneath Ramsay’s pressure-cooker direction until the frame seems set to burst. As she explosively jump cuts to a writhing mass of bodies, covered in what will soon become a primary visual motif, a bright red which here comes from the tomatoes at the Tomatina festival in Spain where we first meet Eva (Tilda Swinton), borne aloft in flashback by the crowd with her arms outstretched, a brief glimpse of soon forgotten freedom whose Christ-like pose seems to presage the relentless Passion play of suffering that begins with the birth of her son.
Advancing the woozy, deconstructive way with storytelling and commitment to a heightened, colour-coded aesthetic so brilliantly established in Morvern Callar, itself an intensified advance on the hyper-real experimental moments of her debut, Ratcatcher (1999), Ramsay’s narrative here is made up of flashes both forward and back, a disorientating patchwork of images and sounds (once again with an astonishing utilisation of music), transfiguring her literary source material about the lead-up to and fallout from a Columbine-style massacre into something entirely cinematic. The first half especially is really something to behold, as we’re plunged into the aftermath of the event, Ramsay’s camera scrutinises every emotion on the magnificent Swinton’s face as she barely clings on to an existence in isolation, scrubbing the blood-red paint thrown across the poky house in which she spends her evenings in drunken anesthesia, desperately attempting to avoid confrontations with a hostile community. Images of decay and disintegration abound, a home falling apart, a poster in the travel agency where she finds a menial job detached from the wall, forgotten meals rotting in the foreground of the frame. Close-ups of Eva picking out clumps of red paint stuck in her hair, the diffusion of red light as she wakes up, even the backdrop of cans of tomato soup when she hides from a neighbour in the supermarket suggest that escape is impossible, that her recent past is all-consuming. Red is synonymous with her tragedy, and its everywhere she looks.
This sense of dread and anxiety begins to be broken down as we flash back to Kevin’s young childhood, witnessing the ever-deteriorating dynamic between mother and son from its inception. There’s a darker-than-dark sense of humour at play in many of these formative relationship scenes, Eva gaining respite from Kevin’s incessant crying as a baby by standing beside a roaring pneumatic drill in the street or her attempt later to explain to him where babies come from, “you’re talking about fucking, right?”. These moments are few though, and as Kevin grows older, the compounding of his sociopathic behaviour takes more of a toll on Eva and by virtue of the subjective direction, also on us. Ramsay unsettles and unnerves at every opportunity, microscopically focussing on the crack of fingernails being bitten, shards of eggshell picked from a mouth, food debris and detritus as it squelches and splats, it’s an experience akin to nails being dragged across a blackboard, or the razor scratching across glass Eva uses on her the windows of her paint-covered home. It all amounts to an almost unbearable build up of tension, we may know where we’re heading, but the journey is squirm-inducing and wholly ambiguous, by the end we’re left gasping for air, for a release, but the ellipses of the narrative have already shown us there’s nowhere to go, that the end is just the beginning.
Even if occasionally Ramsay is perhaps too overtly literal in her psychologising of Kevin, or her metaphors sometimes a little heavy, especially in a sequence set during Halloween, children in horror masks attacking her house like something from a Romero film, they’re minor complaints in light of her breathtaking formal control. The way she places her characters within her frame; Eva totally alone in a hospital bed as her oblivious husband sits beside her, or Kevin and her sitting on the floor of their new home angled miles apart, it’s apt that in following a character desperately attempting to find balance and a sense of control in her own life, over seemingly insurmountable odds, that Ramsay’s sense of both is so staggering, creating a work imbued with breathtaking cinematic technique that also delivers an emotional gut-punch of indescribable force.
We Need To Talk About Kevin – 2011 – UK/USA – 112 mins – Dir : Lynne Ramsay
We Need To Talk About Kevin plays at the
Film Festival on 17th & 18th October and goes on general release on 21st October. London