Dreaming in Red – Lynne Ramsay dialogues with Kevin

The white billowing curtains that open the director’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (2010) instantly bring to mind the curtain within which a boy is entangled at the start of Lynne Ramsay’s stunning feature Ratcatcher (1999), the film with which the Glasgow born director graduated to the longer form. They may also point to a thematic link between the two films: that of characters, especially young people, on collision courses with their immediate environs.
In the more recent film we are taken from the white curtains to a veritable orgy of deep red. The scene is Italy and Eva (Tilda Swinton) is joyously participating in a fiesta with hundreds of like-minded souls. Many of those in attendance are almost literally swimming in a sea of squashed, runny tomatoes. Exhilarated, completely in her element, Eva crowd surfs.
Back where we started, she is living a drastically different life to that of the tireless, insatiable world traveller. It can hardly be termed a life at all. She has been forced to adopt a siege mentality as she endeavours to rebuild her existence following a massacre perpetrated by her sixteen-year-old son Kevin (Ezra Miller). With the youth behind bars, the wider community in this small American town are unleashing their hurt, despair and anger upon her.
Eva’s basic, nondescript living quarters – so different to the airy, spacious home the family lived in prior to the catastrophe – is daubed in red paint, as is her car. Complete strangers stand and stare. A woman approaches on the street and belts her hard across the face. Most of her colleagues at her new place of employment – a travel agency, ironically enough – present the cold shoulder. She has few, if any, friends but many enemies, for the simple reason that she is the mother of the ‘monster child’. Her occasional visits with him in prison are every bit as awkward and futile as any social intercourse she attempts outside the walls.
The guilt laid at her feet is a classic case of guilt by association. Eva is no more directly responsible for what Kevin did than any parents whose sons or daughters take it into their heads to one day run amok. But what she might justifiably stand accused of is botching motherhood, at least when it comes to her first-born. She makes a much better fist of it the second time round, when her daughter enters the picture. Her unease in the first instance is sketched in several short scenes. She is shown alienated from the rhapsodic anticipation of a group of heavily pregnant peers. Moments later she is practically engulfed in a crowd of running, highly excited tiny ballerinas. When Kevin is born it is his father Franklin (John C. Reilly) who is the doting, delighted one. Eva, by contrast, struggles. The baby’s incessant crying grates and from time to time she resorts to extreme measures to deal with it.
As the boy grows he senses his mother’s real feelings and declares war. He resists her attempts at the role, her efforts to cosy up to him, not believing them to be sincere. Indeed they are lacking. Ill at ease, Eva pines for the life left behind. She takes refuge in travel memorabilia – souvenirs, the stubs of old airline tickets, old postcards – and decorates the walls of ‘her’ space with maps. A private domain, a room of her own effectively, is her right, she maintains, and the maps reflect her personality. But her son will not have it and reacts accordingly. Much earlier, she has told the toddler Kevin, frustrated that he will not do her bidding, that she was happy before he came along, that but for him – but for motherhood? – she could be in France. Evidently the savvy child has absorbed this and much else besides and neither forgotten nor forgiven.
He gets on better with his amiable father though there is a calculated quality to much of his buddying up with the old man; clearly, it is in part a weapon aimed at his mother. In any case the pint-sized Kevin becomes the king of the castle. He orders Mum and Dad around and both learn to tread on hot coals around him. Parents who believe in mentoring their children with loving firmness will cringe when they see what this child is allowed to get away with. Easy-going as he is, Franklin cannot see, or refuses to see, that there is a problem with Kevin. Jelly sandwiches wantonly plastered onto tabletops, the defacing of Eva’s maps, these and other acts are the to be expected japery of a little boy, he tells his wife.
The film’s screenplay is an adaptation by Lynne Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear of the Lionel Shriver novel of the same name. They have made the source material their own, as one would expect of a director as adept at visual and aural storytelling as the Glaswegian. Her style frequently eschews words; they would be superfluous in many of the film’s scenes.
This is a work suffused in red. Aside from the aforementioned tomatoes and paint, there is the jelly Kevin is disgustingly wasteful with as well as flashing digital clock displays. The colour is with us again in neon and elsewhere, in particular the streets at night. Other visual cues or motifs are just as striking. The director’s ear is as deft as her eye. An array of natural and otherworldly sounds is balanced with original music and old recordings (Buddy Holly, for example) that comment on or complement the action. The cast are uniformly good. Tilda Swinton, as the mainstay envisioning the nightmare that is her life, never puts a foot wrong.
Two years down the track Kevin is on the verge of being transferred to an adult facility to serve out the rest of his sentence. In the final scene of the film, with Eva paying another visit, there is about him a humanity or vulnerability largely unseen prior to then. This mother / son relationship – so desperately in need of work – may have some potential in it, we are led to believe. It is a hopeful end to a tough, tenacious film, a piece of cinema bound to separate the men from the boys. Perhaps, in the final analysis, We Need To Talk About Kevin may be read as a film about the danger of changing horses mid-stream, especially when your heart is not in the change.

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About owenlindsayboyd

I am a follower of the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda - author of Autobiography of a Yogi. I begin and end each day with meditation, a spiritual base from which all else proceeds. I am a personal carer, writer and traveller, among other things, originally from just outside Melbourne in Australia. I lived in my hometown until 1984, obtaining a degree in Arts, with majors in sociology and communication studies, in 1980. I have spent a considerable amount of time since the late eighties living and working in a wide range of communities in many different parts of the world. I have lived and worked with homeless people, disabled people and refugees. As a writer, I am principally a novelist though I also write shorter pieces, both fiction and non-fiction and have published and self-published poetry, articles, short stories, memoirs and novels. In addition, I write screenplays and have made a number of low-budget film productions. In recent years I self-published a trilogy of novels dealing, principally, with the themes of healing and reconciliation. 'The Unintentional Healing of Soul' (Changeling / Trafford 2003) was followed by 'Proper Respect for a Wound' (Changeling / Trafford 2005) and 'Thanks Be to the World' (Changeling / Trafford 2009). 'Proper Respect for a Wound' was also published in e-book format by Jaffa Books, Brisbane, Australia in 2013. I self-published a two-book travel memoir, 'The Second of Three' and 'From a Caregiver's Point of View' early in 2014. It is distributed on smashwords. Later in 2014 I plan to publish a book of stories.
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