We Need To Talk About Kevin is unlike any other horror story played out on the big screen. When the film opens, it’s easy to see that something terrible has happened to Eva Khatchadourian. She’s a vision of fragility, stumbling around her barely lit home that looks more like the house on an episode of “Hoarders” than anything you would find in Home & Garden. Empty prescription bottles are strewn all over and flies attack a week’s worth of half eaten meals left out to rot. Within the first ten minutes you see that the unspeakable thing, the nightmare that lurks in between the cobwebs of voiceover memory and fragmented visuals of her mind, is not the horrifying school massacre her son commits, but motherhood itself. This visual nightmare starts from the second Swinton appears on screen intercut with hard to digest images of her son, Kevin. We see Eva as she goes through the waves of being pregnant, hiding her eight-month pregnant belly amongst the gloating mothers in lamaze class, tiptoeing around a hoard of dancing kiddie ballerinas as they bounce in the hallways.
She reflects on the life she once had as a traveler, a person who was in the world and conquering it with her other half. A woman who loved having no ties but the stories she made by discovering foreign places. It’s Eva limply holding her first-born after childbirth, solemnly staring at nothing as Kevin wails. It’s Eva holding Kevin at arms length as he continues to scream bloody murder at home; it’s Eva yelling through four-year-old Kevin’s bars “Mommy used to have a great life. Now Mommy wakes up every day and wishes she were in France!” Then it’s Eva sitting across from her incarcerated son, counting the clock on the wall.
Trying to peg down We Need To Talk About Kevin would be like trying to finger the reason for why school massacres happen in the first place. What’s refreshing about Kevin is that it displays a fragmented puzzle left out in the rain to dry. It’s the color red as she stomps on Kevin’s paint gun after he’s ruined her room of maps, the broken arm he seems to loom over her head after she throws him across the room for forcefully crapping his diaper at age 8, the quick gush of jelly out of the sandwich Kevin prepares for himself months before the unthinkable occurs. Most importantly, it’s the singular perspective of a mother that thought she knew who she was as a person, only to have the ground ripped out from under her through her first born.
Swinton sat down at The Dolby Studio on December 1, 2011 to discuss the adaptation from Lionel Shriver’s novel to the schizophrenic mother and son love song of neglect that appears on the screen. “The film was always going to be about atmosphere, moments, much more than it was ever going to be about a traditional narrative. It attempts to make sense of what has happened. We were not going to be describing or explaining, we were going into her head.”
As Eva, Swinton bravely walks through the motions of a dialogue-less narrative, and opens herself up to play the memories perfectly as a stuffy, arrogant, and ambivalent mother in order to be the sympathetic, lost but very accessible soul of a mother grappling with the why of it all. Swinton explains, “It’s not about any truth at all. It’s truly about the inside of somebody’s mind and the phantasmagoria of what lives there. Maternal instinct is not inevitable. And you can go through all the gestation and all that childbirth and look at that baby and not feel akin. And that’s a true nightmare.”
At the center of the muddled dreamy atmospheric images, is a story of a despondent mother who reeks of ambivalence and the son who subtly and not so subtly sniffs out the fake ‘I love you, kiddos’. “It’s not only about their relationship as a love story but it’s also about the business of love, the work of it. It’s easier if you’re on the kool aid of hormones but if you haven’t, it’s still the job, the work of showing up and doing the loving, and trying to feel love is a really interesting subject. It’s a sacrifice. “
What might be Eva’s most horrifying reflection is not the fact that her son played archery practice with the lives of his classmates, but deep down inside she shares a certain common denominator with her son. They see the world simply, not painted in red, which seems to be the featured color of the film, but in black or white.
In the end, it’s “a love story of boy gets mom,” as Swinton explains. Although it’s not entirely clear why Kevin doesn’t take the life of his mother, it’s easy to deduce that by the horrific act itself, Kevin in turn finally got the one thing he wanted – his mother’s full and undivided attention. At the start of the film she was a woman who tried to love her son in a way one tries to take joy in a chore. On the day of his “two-year anniversary” it’s Kevin’s mother, not Eva, who sits across from him, calmly, patiently, and without trying to gain the upper hand over him seeks out a small glimpse of what was inside of his head on that fateful day in the same manner a mother inherently loves her boy. In the end it’s Eva, sandblasting the murderous red paint off of her quaint new home’s exterior, and setting up a small plain room for her only tie left with the world — her son.