Words firmly take a back seat in favour of the haunting power of image and sound as Ramsay turns Shriver’s novel into mesmerising and provocative cinema. ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’ is intense, first-person storytelling as Ramsay and Swinton draw us into the head and world of Eva, just as Ramsay did with Samantha Morton in ‘Morvern Callar’. Yet there’s also a cutting portrait of a family at its heart that makes home life feel like civil war as Ramsay runs with Shriver’s bold ideas about the alienation of parenthood and its devastating effect on love and marriage. Only in its latter stages does the film settle down – a little – into longer scenes and the need to resolve what happened to Kevin. He’s played by a staggeringly creepy Ezra Miller, who inherits the same know-it-all, spooky demeanour of a younger actor, Jasper Newell, earlier in the movie.
The film is at its best in its first hour or so, when it is most daring. The opening sees Eva’s sleeping dream of being carried aloft at a Spanish tomato festival morph into a waking nightmare of her modest house being attacked with red paint. Tomatoes become paint until soon, via ketchup, there are hints of sirens and blood. Sound design is as rigorously and creatively employed: a prisoner’s scream turns into a baby’s cry turns into the wail of a drill.
The film is full of such clever, teasing juxtapositions as thematic links are made between past and present. A distant Christmas for Eva spent in the bosom of her family dissolves to Christmas present and her solitary life as a teen prisoner’s mother and public outcast. We’re never sure whether what we see is the reality of events or Eva’s memory of them. Context is limited and Ramsay’s take on this story is far removed from social commentary or explanation. This is a portrait of a family, channelled through the memories and feelings of the mother herself.
Ramsay challenges even Pedro Almodóvar for an evocative use of red and the look of her film, as shot by Seamus McGarvey, is fragmented, often blurry, close-up, full of detail, preferring to show Eva’s nervous feet as she exits a courthouse – Swinton is a physically awkward presence throughout – rather than her face. If some of the family scenes feel like a domestic war movie, with subtle talk of competitions and victories (‘Well, you won,’ says Eva to Kevin on the mini-golf course), others feel like a horror movie: a scene in which Eva drives through her area at Halloween is chilling.
‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’ is thought-provoking, confident and fearless. It’s experimental but never alienating and horrific in all the right ways. It’s great to have Ramsay back behind the camera after too long an absence. Bring on the next one.