Dir. Lynne Ramsay, UK/USA, 2011, 112 mins
Cast: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller
Review by Carol Allen
The situation in the film is created because Eva (Swinton) and Franklin (Reilly) never did talk about Kevin.
Based on Lionel Shriver’s novel, in Ramsay’s film we move around in time, tracing the relationship between Eva and her son Kevin, who we realise early in the film has committed some terrible murderous act but we don’t find out just what it is until the end. The action is not chronological. Much of it takes place in Eva’s memories but it is always clear where we are in her story.
When Eva and Franklin’s son Kevin is a toddler, Franklin insists they move away from New York to a large house in an affluent, small town suburb to give him the best upbringing. Eva resents the move away from the city and Kevin is a difficult baby, always screaming. He then becomes an even more difficult toddler. But his father adores him and refuses to see that there is a problem.
The film opens dramatically with images of red – Eva’s house splashed with red paint by neighbours, who vilify her for her son’s actions; a dream of heaving bodies wallowing in red yuck; a reddish light on the food she can only pick up at. An atmosphere of dread is immediately established. As Eva tries to understand the terrible thing her son has done, the question is always in her mind, to what extent was she responsible? Because deep down, try as she might, she never liked her son and she fears it was that which has made him what he has become.
Swinton is superb throughout. As an actress, when needed she has a great quality of stillness, which draws us magnetically into the mind of the character, and it works magnificently in this role. She is both the still and the inwardly turbulent centre of the film. Reilly gives excellent support as Franklin, who chooses to live under the illusion that they are a perfect family and dotes dangerously on his son, encouraging his passion first for violent video games and then for archery. As the teenage Kevin, Ezra Miller is dangerously good looking and manipulative with the air of a normal healthy teenager for his father and that of a nihilistic youth with often scarily evil eyes for his mother. The director has also drawn equally disturbing performances from the younger actors, Rock Duer and Jasper Newell, who play Kevin as a toddler and a child. How much of this is real, how much of it as seen through Eva’s memories? Even if it is distorted by her feelings of guilt, to see such stubborn hatred and evil in the face of a child is terrifying, evoking memories of the controversy over child murderer Mary Bell and the two young killers of Jamie Bulger. Early on in the film we meet Eva and Franklin ’s second child, a daughter, who is wearing a surgical patch over one eye. We have no idea why but we immediately deduce it is down to something Kevin has done.
This is a deeply unsettling film throughout and beautifully filmed by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, whose impeccably composed shots make a vital contribution to the unnerving atmosphere of the story. As we move towards the final revelation of what exactly is the terrible thing that Kevin has done, we find there is something in ourselves, which is also worryingly curious and eager to feast on the details. It is difficult to blame Eva for her son’s actions and tempting to condemn the small town community, which blames and punishes her in petty ways for her son’s actions. But how do we know what the objective truth is?
The film provides no answers and leaves the jury out as to what extent Eva and Franklin are responsible for how Kevin has turned out and to what extent he is the author of his own evil actions.
This is Lynne Ramsay’s best film to date. Not a comfortable film to watch but a very powerful and moving one.