Tuesday, July 3, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin: A "Vision Apparent by Shock"


(Lynne Ramsay, 2011)


**NOTE: SPOILERS THROUGHOUT**
The surreal bumps up against the ordinary, and violence, death, and horror run as disturbing threads through all of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction: in “Revelation” a pimply teenaged girl suddenly and viciously hurls her book at the middle-aged, happily complacent woman who sits across from her in the doctor’s waiting room; in “A Good Man Is Hard,” three men savagely, one by one, kill a stranded family with car trouble; “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” ends with a mother dying suddenly of a stroke in her son’s arms; in “Greenleaf” the main character is gored through the heart by a bull in the very last scene; in “Good Country People,” a Bible salesman woos a young woman and steals her artificial leg, leaving her, helpless, in a barn loft.  Not only do these kinds of violent, bizarre events run through O’Connor’s work, but her stories, set in such ordinary contexts, are also filled with “freaks,” as O’Connor called them, physically and spiritually ugly people.  And if we are honest as readers, we do not really sympathize with them in the violence and horror under which they suffer.  If we are even more honest, we might often even find the horror funny. A pimply girl hurling a book at a woman in a waiting room? A stolen leg? O’Connor’s stories are as stuffed with humor – dark though it is – as they are stuffed with horror.  The violence, the freakishness, the humor – all of these elements ultimately make for a very uncomfortable, provocative mix, and inevitably, when I assign O’Connor to my American literature students, the reactions I get from them are extreme: they come away either loving O’Connor’s work or hating it.  In both cases, the reactions are passionate, for O’Connor forces her readers into a confrontation, and some readers thrill to it while others are enraged. 

O’Connor felt that shocking her readers, provoking such reactions, was necessary: “If you want to show something that the majority don’t believe or wish to see, then you have to get and hold their attention usually by extreme means,” she wrote.  And further, “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do,” she said, “you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures.”   Hardly a very flattering portrait of her readers, the blind and the nearly deaf.  But O’Connor’s unapologetic bluntness about what she was doing stemmed from her assurance in herself as a writer (to the question, “why do you write?” she once said, simply, “Because I’m good at it”) and from her assurance in the importance of what she wanted to say.  For the combined effect of her stories’ violence, grotesqueness, and humor is not an end itself; her end is not merely to evoke a sensation; rather, it is to say something she felt was true about world as she saw it, and O’Connor’s violence always aims at some sort of revelation or redemption, both for her characters and, I think, she hoped, for her readers.  Through the shocking violence, her characters reach a crisis in which they are forced see themselves and the world afresh, even if that violence brings them to their deaths. In “Greenleaf,” for example, the main character’s new vision comes - her eyes literally open and staring - exactly as the bull gores into her; the new vision is tied to her death.   O’Connor’s grostequery and violence are ways of rending the physical world, so literally and ruthlessly ripping it apart, that her characters and her readers must see through to something deeper, to that thing that O’Connor called, “mystery” – a spiritual, invisible reality to which her characters had been previously blind.

Brutally shocking garish red screams its way through Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.
  

And the red is so very red, so very saturating that it is intensely uncomfortable, all the moreso, given the key bloody incident that hangs over the film, the incident the red forces us to look at, again and again.  We viewers are forced to confront the violence, to be rubbed with it until we are left smeared with something from which we naturally and instinctively recoil.  Ramsay’s film isn’t gentle.  It isn’t graceful.  It’s as grotesque a vision as anything in we might find in O’Connor.  And confronted with such a blatantly provocative viewing experience, an individual can only react as extremely as the film itself.  There is no neutral reaction possible here.  Ramsay’s violent red, a red heightened even more by her assaultive use of sound and by her darkly humorous and on-the-nose choices in music, demand a response, even from those whom O’Connor might have called the “blind” and “hard of hearing.” And truly, reviews of the film seem especially extreme: 100-rated reviews on metacritic and 0-rated reviews, reviews that claim it is “masterful” and “exquisitely realized” and reviews that claim it is “soulless” and “unwatchable.”  No one seems to be able to offer a ho-hum response.

Perhaps it is my adoration of one of Ramsay’s earlier films – the beautiful, sensitive, and heartbreaking Ratcatcher – or perhaps it is my love for Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant use of violence and of the grotesque – perhaps it is both of those things and perhaps it is neither, but whatever the case, my conclusion, as I consider the shocking experience that is We Need to Talk About Kevin, is that Ramsay’s film is deeply revelatory.  It shocks, by means of what some might call “camp,” but the shock rends a kind of veil – woven, perhaps, of complacency and long-held assumptions – and reveals to us a vision of motherhood that runs counter to everything comfortable, sweet, and cozy.  It is thus more nightmare than epiphany, but because it embraces the nightmare so fully, I believe it is all the more visionary.

The film’s title features a son, not a mother, and that fact, along with the fact of the horrific act committed by the son, perhaps tempts us on an initial viewing into the idea that the film is most interested in exploring Kevin and in exploring the history and psychology that led a boy from a privileged home towards his brutal actions.  From the very first frames, however, we are shown that this is Eva’s story, the mother’s story, not the son’s.  Not Kevin’s.  The film opens with a scene that, at first and for some time as the film runs, means very little.  It is evening, and we are in a dim house.  A sliding door stands open to the air; a white, sheer curtain moves gracefully; the ballooning fabric presses gently into the room.  
The sound of a pulsating sprinkler – ch-ch-ch–ch – permeates the scene.  These are images and sounds, as we learn much later in the film, from Eva’s memory – only she was privy to them.  And that evening – with the floating white curtain, the nighttime light, the sound of the sprinkler – is the evening that represents the bloody crux of Eva’s journey.  It is, for her, the turning point of her life, where she is forced to face not only literal violence – a moment where one privileged, complacent life ends and a new destitute life begins – but also a metaphorical, psychological violence that forces her, finally, from one identity, to which she’d been desperately clinging, into a new identity.  The film, then, is not primarily tied to literal, factual events that comprise a life journey, but rather to a more subjective journey of the mind and of the emotions – Eva’s mind and emotions.  

A great deal of the discomfort of the film stems from the fact that we are immersed so uncompromisingly into that fractured confusion of Eva’s being.  Her story, her self, is filtered for us through a series of disjointed, seemingly mismatched images and sounds, and both are linked equally to past and present.  Her story does have a clear present: she lives alone in a shabby, unkempt home, a place actively void of her personality or care.   
She herself seems numb or sleepwalking, living in the wake of what we soon realize has been some horrific event.  But the film shifts so swiftly and so fluidly between that present and the past—several different pasts, in fact—that we are often unsure at first whether we are seeing the present or a past and we are unsure at first of the particular past.  But this fluidity of time, this lack of any chronology--as the red blinking 12:00 in Eva’s bedroom indicates
--represents Eva’s mindset: for her, the past is her present; it informs her present, overshadows her present; she sees it and feels it in everything. 
Likewise, the central horrific event of Eva’s life informs and overshadows everything that came previous to it so that every point in time is in some way the same.  Every moment in filtered through the red-colored lens of Eva’s horror.  Time is round, we might say, not linear. 

Given the film’s context then – Eva’s mind and emotions,   
which have no ordered time frame –-it is a film that demands second and third viewings, for a first viewing is incredibly disorienting; our senses are bombarded with images and sounds that feel powerful – almost unbearable in their power - but which we do not quite understand, and the sense of time is conflated and compacted to such a degree that, in the natural reaching for a linear path, we are easily lost, perhaps even frustrated.  We are not used, I think, to feeling a story, to tracking a character’s journey via such tangentially connected, emotive, and personally significant sounds and images; we perhaps long for more dialogue or even some exposition to give us a foothold.  But giving in to the film’s sensory journey via Eva’s emotions and state of mind offers a cinematic experience quite unlike any other– Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life imagistic journey, as it is linked to the mind of the main character might possibly be one unique parallel – and it is such an uncomfortable, unsettling journey that perhaps we are all the more resistant.  But if we are willing to give in to this journey and if, further, we are willing to take the journey twice or thrice, the path through the film is clear.  Impressionistic and associative as Eva’s story is –with her dreams, her present, her memory—all whirled together, it is nonetheless a journey.  Eva’s story does have an arc and a distinct resolution.

In spite of the fact of this arc, it is best, I think, to approach the film, as it itself is constructed: via its key moments in which we most clearly see time and space conflating for Eva.  We could, certainly, track the chronology of the events of the film, but if we are to approach the film as one about a state of mind, as a psychological and emotional journey, then actual chronology isn’t as important – it is perhaps even distracting.  We want to understand, finally, Eva herself, not the actual events as we might a news story, but her perception of them and her feelings about them. 
Any number of scenes beautifully and wrenchingly illustrate Eva’s state of mind: in one scene, set initially in the film’s present, Eva walks down a prison corridor after a visit to her son, Kevin, and she passes two guards holding a prisoner down to the ground – the struggling, helpless man looks up at her, in a voice that is somehow both screaming and pleading, “I didn’t do anything!”

The camera’s gaze immediately shifts to a hazy scene, 
 where someone – we don’t know who - is screaming, “Nooo!” -- and louder and longer, “Noooooo!”  We realize, slowly, through the haze and the fractured images and confused sound, we are in a hospital, at a birth; a nurse or a doctor says, “You must stop resisting, Eva,” and we see Eva’s face in the round hospital mirror, wrenched, topsy-turvy, upside down – clench-mouthed.
 
And Eva screams on, her experience and herself a mirror of the prisoner on the ground, restrained by guards.  Eva’s mind conflates what she sees in the present – the prisoner – with her past, with her own struggle – in this case, the moment in the past in which motherhood had been thrust upon her.  Kevin’s birth she associates with forcible imprisonment and with her own screaming and ineffectual protest against it. 

In another scene, again, set initially in the present, Eva drives through a neighborhood at night; it is Halloween, and children are dressed up in their finest ghoulish attire.  Eva startles when she notices them;
 

they seem to stare in the car windows at her, seeming to taunt her, mock her.  When she arrives home, closing the door on the Halloween night, the children glare in at the windows
 
 
and almost immediately begin knocking at her door, threatening and demanding, “Trick or treat! Candy! Candy!”  And Eva frantically searches her bare cupboards for a pacifying offering for these children, but she has nothing, nothing to satisfy them, and so she hurriedly turns off her light, a poor attempt to indicate she is not at home, and shrinks into a corner,

while the pounding on the door grows louder, louder.  Eva covers her ears, and the scene shifts: her house door becomes a refrigerator door of the past and the pounding becomes the smack of a toddler’s bowl of food being thrown at that time distant refrigerator.
 
 
Pound, pound, smack, smack, “Candy! Candy!”  The children are monsters.  Her toddler, her child is a voracious monster, demanding food and then hurling it from him in a vicious attack upon her being and senses. 

The Halloween scene is perhaps one of the most obvious indicators of Eva’s state of mind – an indicator of her feelings about her son and of the violent pressures closing in upon her psyche, an indicator of her relationship with and feelings about him.  There is nothing fun or sweet for her about the children dressing up for Halloween and going trick-or-treating; it is only a horror in light of what her own child grew up to do and, also, most particularly, in the light of her own ambivalence about motherhood, an ambivalence that was with her from her first-born, Kevin’s, very conception, a moment imagined as maliciously dividing cancer cells:  


Ultimately, though, I think we must say, this is not a sideshow story about one unique woman and her mutant, monstrous killer of a son; it is not a story we can dismiss so easily as merely camp, or freakish, or ghoulish, something wholly other, something apart from the ordinary.  No, it is a great deal more piercing and uncomfortable than that.  The film isn’t interested in giving us Kevin’s psychology; it isn’t interested in helping us understand why Kevin went on to so wantonly murder his classmates.  We never see Kevin’s journey.  We never see into his mind.  We are never alone with him to do so.  We see him, only, through the lens of Eva’s own perspective.  As such, the film is interested in showing us the cognitive dissonance a woman – dare I say, any woman - might experience when her body, her life, her mind – her self – are disrupted by the birth of her first child, when her identity is no longer her own but instantly and inextricably linked to another human being’s.  For the rest of her life.  Motherhood.  Eva is no longer Eva, the lover,

the career woman and "Legendary Adventurer"; 
she is a mother, “Mummers.”  Eva becomes a name absolutely tied to motherhood, and the universal overtones of Eva - “Eve” - cannot be missed, as Eve means “living” or “mother of the living.”  

We might ask, then, if this is such a big sort of story, reflective in some way, of the experience of all or many women who become mothers, why make it such a gruesome story?  Why make the first-born child of this mother such a horrific person, so, apparently, evil?  Ramsay, I believe, like Flannery O’Connor, uses the horrific to force our attention; she shocks us, casting her story of motherhood in an unthinkable context to reveal something to us that we might normally pass by or take for granted.  “Sure, I have a mother” or “Yes, I am a mother” and “Yes, yes, I know all about that.”  But perhaps we don’t.  What are the stories of mothers around us, what are our common myths?  Mothers in movies, for example, are often one extreme being or the other, the angelic nurturer, for example, in Malick’s Tree of Life or the brutal religious fanatic in Carrie. Eva is neither one of these kinds of mothers.  She is certainly at odds with the other mothers around her – she doesn’t fit the type, as we see so vividly, in a scene in a locker room: Eva, sitting slumped in sloppy, loose clothing that hides her pregnancy, is contrasted to the happily chatting women around her, their skin glowing, their bulging bellies, bare and triumphant.
 
 
Eva isn’t one of them, clearly. She is isolated even as she is surrounded and suffocated.  And as she walks later, alone, her expressionless face is like a horrible wince of pain as she is enveloped by a wave of children, skipping, pink little girl ballerinas.
  
 
Eva in the midst of the bulging bellies, Eva in the midst of darling pink tutus – these are just two more images of Eva, showing us so vividly her state of mind, her sense of herself in its disjointed state, her mind disconnected and resisting her physical state, her pregnancy, herself as mother.  Unlike the women around her, her pregnancy is something she cannot embrace as something she has chosen for herself – it is, rather, an alien imposition upon her very being.

Disjointed as her sense of her self is, however, Eva isn’t a monster: she isn’t Carrie’s mother, and she doesn’t fit the monstrous woman myth.  She will not acknowledge her pregnancy, she screams and resists through her childbirth, and she sits in an emotional blank in the hospital bed as her husband fauns so smilingly over his first-born son,
 
 
 but at home with Kevin, she tries. Kevin’s screams cannot be drowned out by even a jackhammer,
 

and her body is not her own—she lies exhausted, with outlandish, engorged breasts when Kevin finally sleeps
 
 
—but alien as this motherhood is to her, she tries. 

Lifting baby Kevin up in one scene, she smiles at him desperately, her smile almost ferocious in its effort;
 
 

in another scene, she sits on the floor to play ball with the toddler Kevin, plastering on her smile at intervals again in her effort to engage the glowering boy by sheer force of action.

But Eva’s efforts at motherhood with her first-born are just that – efforts that are--and clearly feel—unnatural to her.  Motherhood is still a thing that has been thrust upon her and that drowns her; her smiles are really a drowning woman’s desperation to stay afloat, not the indication of a truly happy, natural swimmer. 

Throughout the film we see those threads of the self that Eva would like to be, the self she sees herself as – a self that is disconnected from the domesticity of motherhood and, specifically, from Kevin.  Some early images of the film (though still bathed in red, and thus bathed in Eva’s present mind’s consciousness of Kevin) are of Eva alone, her pre-Kevin self, exulting in the tomato festival of Spain, limbs splayed and lolling in utter freedom and lips joyously parted.
 
Peppered throughout the film, too, are images of Eva and Franklin in their early days of falling in love; here, again, Eva is joyous, full, exultant.
 
 

Eva’s conception of herself, we see , through these images of freedom and through the paired images of Eva’s various moments of resistance against the bonds of motherhood, is as a free agent.  Her love for her husband, Franklin, is something she chose, something her emotional and sexual self gravitated towards organically and freely – her relationship with Franklin is mutual and mutually fulfilling; her career, too, as it is so linked to world travel, is something she chose naturally, chose passionately, as we see in her exultation in Spain, as we see in the room in her home that she tenderly covers with world maps – her designated room, her room, so satisfyingly for herself alone.
 
 

The advent of Kevin impinges on Eva’s notion of her deepest self, and Kevin’s assault with ink upon her map room is not primarily an indication of Kevin’s evil: it is an indication of Eva’s perception of Kevin’s assault upon her own being – it is personal. 
   
 
Kevin intrudes into her emotional and sexual bond with Franklin (often literally interrupting); he disrupts her ability to travel anywhere she likes at any time, as we hear in a remembered argument with Franklin in which he protests her desire to leave for Ecuador; Kevin, as we have seen, invades her very physical self – her belly, her breasts, her body’s need for sleep.  And while Kevin goes on to do a truly horrific deed, we must acknowledge the fact that Kevin the baby—and even his later self, as a toddler, as a 6 or 7 year old, as a teenager – is not actually, based on the facts we can glean, a monster.  The factual things we can confirm that Kevin is, the things we see him do are not, in themselves, monstrous.  Apart from the actual murder, there is no real, factually demonstrable thing that Kevin does that is horrific, that makes him a literal demon seed.  As a baby he cries. A lot.  Many babies do.  As a toddler he is non-responsive, or he hurls food.  He has potty training issues.  Lots of young children do those things or have that issue.  (Show me a normal child who hasn’t. Let me introduce you to mine.)  As a teenager, he teases his little sister, demands she get him soda, and vacuums her hair.  (Is there such a thing as a big brother who doesn’t torment his little sister?)  Certainly, there are suggestions of Kevin’s propensity towards violence.  Eva believes he has killed his little sister’s guinea pig; she believes he has poured Dran-o in his little sister’s eye; and he keeps computer viruses, inexplicably, on disks in his room. But the computer virus might be a thing any disgruntled teenager (or adult, in fact) might keep, and the horrific things Eva believes Kevin does are suggestions Eva herself makes – these things are confirmed by no one else.  We don’t know they are true; we never actually see him do any of those things.  We are following her character, so we do believe her –or we want to –but the evidence of the film demonstrates Eva’s limited perspective as a narrator.  Can she, in fact, interpret Kevin for us, when from the moment of his birth, we see she has refused him, resisted him as hers?  Can we, in fact, rely on her interpretation of her memory of the events of the past (a double remove – an interpretation of a memory) when her memory and her interpretation are all filtered through the murders Kevin commits?  All filtered through her own desire to disassociate herself from him? All filtered through the idea that his very being is an assault upon hers?

The bare fact of the freely associating images of the film—showing us that the present, for Eva, is all connected to and associated with her past and her memory—pushes us towards the fact that Eva’s memory is just that – her memory. It is not neutral.  It is hers. And notably, for example, we do not see the murders, but we see Eva imagining Kevin posturing with his bow and arrow, just having committed the murders.
   
 

It is the one key scene, however, of Eva’s mind, the one linked to the very opening images – of the dim evening with the white billowing curtain and the sound of the sprinkler—that finally reveals, just how far Eva might be misremembering or misinterpreting any number of the events of her life, especially those related to Kevin.  The film returns us, at various points and often, to the sound of the sprinkler, to the image of the curtains.  We hear the sprinkler, for example, when Eva discovers that Kevin has splattered ink all over her lovingly decorated map room. We hear the sprinkler when the camera focuses in on Kevin’s little sister’s guinea pig.  That sound filters Eva's memories of the times Kevin had assaulted her - or when she feels he had assaulted her.

The significance of the evening with the curtains and the sprinkler isn’t fully revealed until late in the film.  We return to that evening, just after Eva has learned of the multiple murders at the school that Kevin has committed, and Eva is returning home, to her dark house.  She is alone – only her footsteps echo.  As she calls, “Franklin?” “Celia?” Eva sees the open sliding door and the billowing white curtain.  And we finally move—the sound of the sprinkler growing louder and louder, ch-ch-ch-ch-ch -–through the curtains (Kevin’s target only just visible through the sheer white),  
 
 
and out onto the lawn, where Eva discovers the final horror: her husband and her daughter lying wet in the grass, dead, shot through with Kevin’s arrows.  And the sprinkler shoots up and water rains down on them, an unrelenting, impassive.  But with this sound and image, we understand the deep disconnect of Eva’s mind-–the separation between an actual event and a memory of an event.  The sprinklers we see on the lawn are the oscillating, not the pulsating, kind.
 
 
They should make no sound at all, barring, perhaps, a very faint hissing of water.  But the scene is not silent.  The sound of a kind of sprinkler that is not, in fact, actually in the scene, confusingly permeates it. Image is disconnected from sound; image and sound are out of joint.  And this sign, among many others, is an indication of several key things: of Eva’s unreliable memory of her past; of the permeation and impact that this event has had upon her – her memory of the sound of it, filling other moments of her past; and, I think most notably, of the disconnect at the heart of Eva’s very being.
  
The film, I believe, is about a woman coming to terms with her new identity as a mother.  It uses a horrifying vehicle to do so – a bloody, some might call, tasteless and soulless vehicle – but the violent disruption at the core of Eva’s mind and being is so severe, it can only be simultaneously resolved within Eva and demonstrated to us, through these bloody, extreme means.  From Kevin’s conception and through her pregnancy, Eva rejects motherhood, and outwardly as much as she wants to show otherwise, she rejects Kevin as her son, from his birth onward.  The film is full of her fierce attempt to maintain her identity as a free agent and disassociate herself as far as possible from the emotional, physical, and mental consuming thing that is motherhood.  Eva’s very name indicates “mother of the life,” but she rarely refers to herself as “I” or “me” when we see her interacting with Kevin; she refers to her identity as a mother in the third person: “What Mummer did is very, very wrong, and she’s so, so sorry,” she says to Kevin – a forcible removal of motherhood from herself as an “I.”  But motherhood is consuming, and Kevin, both by his mere presence and by his personality, will not allow her continue distancing herself.  It is a bloody, horrific act by her son that finally strips her of everything that she identified as her own, as her self – her husband, her job, her chosen daughter.  She is left nearly penniless, destitute of comfort and friends, bathed in the blood Kevin shed, and identified by everyone, not as Eva Khatchadourian, but as Kevin’s mother.  She, for the world around her, and now for herself, is nothing else but his mother.  It is very, very bleak indeed.

The film It’s a Wonderful Life is a film I love in large part because it is about one man’s struggle with who he believes he is – a traveler, an adventurer, a builder – and who he actually is.  His life, as it comes, isn’t the life he wanted.  It isn’t the life he planned.  He was meant, he believes, for big things, for glorious things, not for a small, domesticated life in a “crummy little town.”  The joy of the film, of course, comes as he realizes the treasure that is his actual life, not his imagined life, the treasure that is the real George Bailey, not the George Bailey he thought he should be.  And the end of the film, as he is surrounded by warmth, laughter, happy tears, and friends, he shows us his heartfelt, and finally full, acknowledgement of that treasure.  The George Bailey that he longed to be is still out there somewhere, and that fact holds for me that sharp poignance that keeps the film from sentimentality.  But George, in the end, stops fighting himself, he stops fighting the forever falling off knob on his house’s stair railing and instead, kisses it.  It is his, it is himself, he will embrace it.

Eva’s bleak journey does not end with such joy.  She is not surrounded, like George is, by her loving friends, by a supportive town.  She has nothing.  Nothing but herself and her son.  And there lies the real resolution.  In the end of the film, Eva finishes cleaning the red paint that an angry world had splattered on her house in the beginning, a revenge given to her as much as it is given to Kevin.  She finishes cleaning and begins to make the shabby house which she’s been merely inhabiting, a place to live.  A home for herself and for Kevin, her son.  She paints the interior walls, and she carefully irons and folds Kevin’s shirts
 
 
– the maddening, tight shirts we’ve seen him wear and that have made her and us uncomfortable throughout the film.  She makes a bed for him, taking infinite care over the edges, tucking them smooth, and she places Robin Hood on the bookshelf, a book representing his violent action, her possible complicity in it, and the bond she and he share, a moment of connection between a sick boy and his mother.

Then, in the very last scene – a scene in which there are no interruptions of memories, of images or sounds from the past, no wildly associative and disjointed moments – Eva visits Kevin, and she is fully present – fully in the present.  In previous visits, Kevin and Eva have been at odds;
 
 
they have been clearly in a battle against one another – they either spar with one another – Kevin always taunting her – or they are silent.  More, we know, in a refusal to speak than in a lack of things to say.  

But this final visit, this final scene, is different.  Eva looks at Kevin, as if for the first time, for in her face is an open vulnerability
 
 
– wounded and wary, yes, but it is not the guarded shield, the mask we’ve seen on her in every other moment with Kevin.  She looks him full in the face; they have a real conversation, and Eva says very simply, “I want you to tell me why.”  And Kevin, during this conversation, for the first time, looks unsure, himself emotionally vulnerable, his head shorn of its shock of black hair
  
 
swallows, and says, “I thought I knew once.”  The two sit, in the wake of that answer, and look at one another.  This ending is not about that answer - it is about Eva and Kevin looking at one another, about Eva truly looking at Kevin.

Kevin, here, so vulnerable, even afraid, is, for the first time, real.  He is not the nightmarish demon-seed.  Not, I believe, because he is changed or because he is a different person, but because Eva has changed.  Eva is finally looking at him, without that resistant barrier, which she struggled to put for so long between them, in her desperate effort to maintain the identity she wanted without him.

And then, the guard calls time, and in what is the most moving moment of the film, Eva, without waiting for Kevin to make a move, deliberately clasps him to herself. 
 

It is a volitional, honest action – not the false action that was the plastered smile she gave Kevin as a baby – but an action that is both her decision and her emotional present.  It is an action that demonstrates to us her decision and her emotional ability to finally embrace Kevin as her own, embracing him for whoever he is and for whatever that embrace will continue to mean to her and to her life.

In this scene, she rejects the solitary identity she’d been struggling to assert and accepts, literally embraces, the connection between them.  And in that moment Kevin becomes, for the first time, a complex being – or at least, a being with the potential for complexity.  He isn’t a “thing” that has invaded Eva’s life anymore; he is her son.  We feel it. Her embrace of him as her son, of herself as mother, doesn’t diminish the horror of his actions– she knows, fully, that horror because she has bathed in it, but facing it straight on, as her own, is a release, a catharsis she needs.  Her life can never be a “wonderful life,” but she owns, fully, a kind of peace. She is at one with herself again.  And in the final moments, Eva walks down the corridor towards whiteness.  The red is gone.
 
 

Like Flannery O’Connor’s stories, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is an assault.  But it is in pursuit of an emotional truth and in pursuit of a journey through a mother's cognitive dissonance, through a war within herself.  The film is about that violent wrench in her notion of herself, of her identity, the disconnect between her perception of who she is or was as opposed to the new identity that has engulfed her. The film sets out to shock with blood and violence because it sees Eva’s mental and emotional journey as bloody and as violent as real blood, real violence.
  
I understand why so many of my students are angered by O’Connor’s stories, and I understand the anger a given viewer might have at this story, too.  That it dares to transgress our notions of decency acts like a kind of violence upon us, but ultimately, for me, the portrait it offers us of a woman struggling against motherhood and of a woman’s, final embrace of that motherhood as a part of herself, is as revelatory, as honest, and as human as the work of the most truly visionary of our artists. 

47 comments:

  1. My response was one of the rare "ho-hum" ones but I must say you make some very compelling arguments and observations in this impressive piece. I truly envy the depth of your analysis and your engagement with the film, you've given me plenty to think about.

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    1. Ha, you stand out from the crowd with your response then! :) I hope you do revisit the film at some point in the future; it rewards multiple viewings, in my experience - I've seen it three times (a rare twice in the theater!)and it only gets better, more thematically unified and structurally superb. Amazing editing. And the sound design - brilliant!

      Thanks so much for reading and for your comment - I envy you your ability to watch so many films and write about them so succinctly and helpfully. I love your insightful snippet reviews (though I really love your longer reviews, too!); your blog is my go-to place for most films, especially for films no one else I know of has seen!

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  2. I always love the diversity of your references, Melissa. (Somebody's going to pick up your blog for the DVD cover - "If you loved 'It's a Wonderful Life', you'll love 'We Need to Talk About Kevin'!" - Melissa T. ;-) ... Seriously, though, I saw the film once, it ended up as my #10 of 2011, I argued with detractors actively, and yet I feel like I just scratched the surface. Bravo. - sdb

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    1. Thanks so much, Steven, for reading. I know you are as much a supporter of the film as I, and it was so good to know, as I was hammering this out, that I had your moral support! Really, really happy now, too, to know you appreciate my attempt here.

      Haha, I love your idea for the DVD cover! I always have said It's a Wonderful Life is much darker than most people give it credit for. :)

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  3. What a stunningly well put take on this! I love it like you do and I agree with so much you say here, about how it's not a movie about a boy committing a crime, but about her and about her relationship to motherhood. I just couldn't put it as well as you do here. You really make me want to watch it again. Once is really not enough in such a rich movie as this.

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    2. Thank-you so much, Jessica, and I'm so happy you are another fan of the film. And yes, it's absolutely a film for re-watching - if you can bear it, that is. :) Amazing how on edge a film with no actual gore can make you feel - it's all so incredibly visceral. My husband, walking out of the film, said, "I'm never watching that again." He loved it, but it was too intense for him to consider a second viewing. I had to find someone else to go to the cinema with me when I wanted to go back! But it is so very rich, and repeat viewings just show that. I own the DVD now, and I'm so happy to have it. (Btw, I held off on reading your Kevin review until mine was done, so I'm headed to your blog now to find it! I know it's been some time since you posted it.)

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  4. Great comment about the DVD cover, Anon/Stephen. I also thought maybe the application of your idea could be used with the Netflix recommendations-"Based on your interest in It's a Wonderful Life... Seems a little farfetched at first thought, but after reading this review, why not! As the one who stated he had no interest in ever seeing the film again, I have to say that Melissa's work here has renewed my interest in revisiting the movie. From start to finish, during my initial viewing that horrible, hateful kid Kevin had my stomach in knots and teeth on edge. The feeling you get from his neh neh neh neh neh, response to the efforts of "love" from his mother kind of summed up my feelings during the whole movie. I had no complaints about the film. There were no problems with it that jumped out at me, it just didn't make me feel very good. But this analysis has really turned it around for me. The arguments are extremely compelling. I can't imagine a more consistent interpretation that unifies all the different particulars into a cohesive whole, and that central theme is so powerful--the experience of a reluctant and fallible mother parenting/producing(?) a most fallible child. Melissa, in place of my teeth being on edge, your interpretation has set my heart aching (in fact, I think there was a little dust swirling around as I neared the end of your review). So I would now love to revisit this film, taking to it a fuller, and what seems to be a truer, understanding of what Ramsay is attempting.

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    1. Amazing, isn't it, what poignancy that final scene holds, when one thinks of it as the culmination of Eva's internal journey? My first time seeing the film, I think I felt too stunned by it to feel any tender kind of emotion, but watching it again and thinking of it in this new way, yes, a huge lump was in my throat and the dust was swirling for me, too. And in this regard, actually, I think Ramsay departs from the impact of O'Connor; the latter stuns you without evoking that sympathetic emotion that Ramsay does here for the character's struggle.

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  5. Great review, M and one I've anticipated for a long time and it certainly did not disappoint :). I know we discussed some of the elements you bring up offline and that a lot of what you say here resonated with me as well. I love the comparisons to Flannery O'Connor's prose and the very divisive reactions it evokes.
    I think perhaps that one of the reasons people are so disappointed / alienated by the film is that, as you so rightly point out, they perhaps go in expecting an insight into Kevin. But given how the whole film is from Eva's perspective and given that most of the film is her struggling with and imo, failing to really separate her own possible role in these events from those of Kevin, anyone wanting that is not going to get any answers. I haven't read a lot of people's criticism of the film but do think it's telling that people have used the term "Omen child" to describe Kevin in the film. Faced with a vision of horror, it's easier to put it behind you, to not relate so personally to it, if you can find yourself an explanation and then comfortably reassure yourself that given the explanation, it couldn't happen to you. Personally, I think it's both courageous and honest to present the situation in all it's complexity and acknowledge that there are no clear, easy answers to be had. I think it at least to a degree explains the popularity of crime dramas and mystery novels. Once I understand "why", I can grapple with it. Without that, going to bed at night is a lot harder.
    Plus, the film to me is largely about Eva trying to find an explanation. And I don't think that even an ambivalent, perhaps even unwilling mother could simply conclude that their offspring is just evil.
    Personally I find that human motivations behind even some of the most banal actions seem to be so complex and varied and love that Ramsay doesn't even attempt to offer any sort of "x leads to y" explanations.

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    1. These are such great points, Char, thanks for writing! I, too, love the refusal to offer clear, easy answers - which is where we finally arrive at the end. The easy answer is "Kevin is a monster; that's why he did it," but that simply won't hold up in Eva's mind when she embraces her own complexity (and, I think, fallibility) as a human being and embraces Kevin as a part of herself, her offspring.

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  6. Apologies for that super long comment :). One last thing. Another filmmaker whose films often work in a similarly elliptical, fragmented way is Claire Denis. While reading your piece, I thought of White Material in particular, which evoked some similar reactions w.r.t. the opacity of Huppert's character in the film. I think one of the reasons that film doesn't seem to evoke quite as many extreme negative reactions perhaps is that school shootings are much more of a hot button topic than colonialism for most viewers. Both great films.

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    1. No apologies necessary! :) Love the connection to Denis. I've seen bits of White Material but must catch up with it, fully, soon (great point about colonialism as a topic that is not so hot), but in her other films, yes, the fragmentation is such an interesting way to approach a story, a character. Denis evades those easy explanations of actions for her characters, too, I think, and while they are often, in some sense, opaque to us - we don't quite understand all their motivations - they are nonetheless (all the moreso?) fully rounded and fascinating.

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  7. Apparently, I wasn't done after all *shiftyeyes*. A couple other things that imo supports your many examples w.r.t. the subjectivity of the PoV in the film. We always see Eva's co-workers as ridiculously boring, unattractive people. I never saw it as being a realistic depiction of those people. It's how Eva sees them and that's why they are painted so broadly imo. Likewise the depiction of Franklin (John C. Reilly) as a mostly emasculated, naive husband who seems oblivious to Kevin's dark side. In the few scenes where we see him with the kids alone, we see a loving, doting father. It's only when we see him from Eva's PoV that he comes across as clueless and bourgeois - a man who wants the stable, suburban lifestyle vs. her dreams of travel and adventure.

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    1. Excellent point, yes! The flatness of her co-workers and Franklin's naivete are equally so exaggerated that it highlights the presence of and the problematic nature of Eva's viewpoint, as well as her, hmmm, arrogance? (Her comment about "fat people" at the mini-golf place also highlights her view of others.) It's interesting (and brilliant) how the film shows us Eva's biased perspective through these things and also shows us just how stripped she felt, later, of everything she thought she was or thought she knew.

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  8. Such a good analysis that all I can say is yes, yes, yes. I didn't love it as much, but I did find myself fascinated by the depth of the film and the amount of ambiguity involved. To me, it's not as wry a O'Connor, but I can certainly feel that twine of fascinating repulsion from her stories.

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    1. Thanks for reading and thanks so much for your comments! Yes, O'Connor has a certain edge, or wryness, as you put it, that isn't so present here in Ramsay's work, which contains more, hmmm, sympathy? I suppose O'Connor has been for me more of a way into understanding what Ramsay is doing (specifically via the shock and violence - and humor!); she's not necessarily an exact parallel, I agree.

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  9. Great essay, I think you've captured the film almost exactly. My only (minor) quibble would be that I think while the film is about Eva's state of mind, and her subjective attempts to come to terms with her life, I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the possibility that Kevin is simply evil as well. There's lots of bad parents whose kids don't grow up to be murderers. Similarly, there's lots of colicky babies who don't grow up to be sociopaths. I think it took Eva and Kevin both to create an atrocity.
    I haven't seen Ratcatcher yet, but there are some interesting similarities to Ramsay's other film, Morvern Callar, which is also about a woman coming to terms with the violence in her past. Morvern has a much happier ending than Eva, though.

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    1. Thanks, and thanks for reading! Yes, I agree with you actually: it is certainly possible that Kevin is simply evil. The final scene gives a pretty strong clue that he is more complex than that, in part because he hesitates about himself in a way we've not seem him do before, but yes, he could be just plain evil. The film, I think, leaves us ultimately in the dark about him (her final "why" and his final "I thought I knew" leaves us in ignorance at the last). Since everything is so filtered through Eva and since we have no other more neutral perspective, we don't know when she is interpreting him correctly and when she isn't. The main thing, in the end, is what her idea of him has been and what her own resolution is for herself - and her careful readying of his room and her embrace of him, indicate that she's just resolved that he is hers, no matter what (and the implication there, I think, in that resolution is yes, that she is complicit in whatever it is that he is and whatever it is that led him to do what he did). Kevin's motivations and mind are a question mark - he could be evil, he could be complex - but Eva's mind isn't, and she is who the film is about.
      I really need to catch up with Movern Callar, and I'm eager to hear what you think of Ratcatcher! My impression of Movern and my experience with Ratcatcher (and now with Kevin) indicate that Ramsay is very interested in the psychology of a main character - or in putting us at the center of feeling, maybe, of a main character. And it makes for a very subjective, fascinating film experience - or frustrating, I suppose, if you want more, what we might call, "answers."

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    2. Yeah, I really dig that radical subjectivity in Kevin. I don't think Morvern goes quite that far.

      That's something I think I would have liked to have seen more of in In the Cut, actually, instead of the standard mystery plot/resolution.

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    3. Am with you, Sean. I don't think the film forces a reading one way or the other unequivocally. I think what's most interesting to me is the film as a portrait of a parent grappling with that very uncertaintly. Closure is v. helpful but rarely available, no? I love Morvern but it's for other things (the music, the rather radical portrayal of how someone handles grief etc.) but this one's a lot more ambiguous and radical in terms of it's openness to interpretation.

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    4. Yeah, it (Kevin) is fundamentally about our inability to have a single explanation for an event, and especially a question like "why did my child turn out the way he did?" Criticizing it for then not providing a coherent explanation seems to be wildly missing the point.

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    5. Char and Sean, I love you both. Yes, yes, yes, to all of that.

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  10. Oo, yes, I like the idea of more subjectivity in In the Cut! And I suppose, yes, the mystery/plot gets in the way of that, especially since it's Frannie's psyche that matters, not the whodunit.

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    1. Yeah, I would have liked the killings to be entirely unrelated to her, but in her paranoid/repressed state of mind she'd be conflating her desires for men with violence and aggression on their part. There's some of that in the film (every man she meets but Patrice O'Neal is depicted as the potential killer), but then it turns out to be kinda justified.

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    2. Yes, that approach could be really interesting, maybe particularly as it would mirror the strictly metaphorical nature of her mother's "death" when her father left. Though, hmmm, there's something I rather like, too, about the very literal nature of violence she experiences, partly in that it forces a confrontation, forces her to more action than we've seen. It might not quite work - but I like that Campion tried it. I love her audacity as a filmmaker, pushing the limits of a genre in In the Cut, testing our expectations for a heroine in that genre. I see some of that audaciousness in all her work - and it's kind of exhilarating, even if it's not always completely successful as a whole piece, perhaps.

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    3. I see what you're saying, I just wish she had pushed things a bit further, to more thoroughly undermine the connection between sex and violence in the serial killer/slasher genre.

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  11. I love your analysis, Melissa. It really opened the film up for me, like the best analyses do. I understood that the movie was subjective from her point of view, but you really brought out the motherhood aspect that I had missed.

    And, of course, I love the connection to Flannery O'Connor. In a sense, the film is less grotesque than O'Connor's stories, because this film has a horror feel throughout it, while the grotesque in O'Connor's stories come almost out of the blue, unexpectedly.

    Thanks, again, for writing. I wish you had time to write more about film (I wish I did too), but I really appreciate what you give us.

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    1. What I do want most from writing about film is a new kind of sight - a new way into a film, a new way of exploring it and understanding it. Writing about a film - in the best cases - does that for me: it helps me see it more clearly and/or from a new, deeper angle. And I'm so happy that you as a reader can find some useful insight in what I write, too. It's so rewarding..

      Analogies always have their limitations, but the connection to O'Connor did help me as I thought about this film, so I'm glad you felt it worked. We often understand new things by relating them to other more familiar things; having just taught O'Connor in my Am lit class, my mind immediately jumped to her! :)

      Thank-you so much for reading and commenting, Steve. It means a lot. I wish, too, I could write more (and that you could, too, although you, happily, write more regularly than I seem to be able to). I have a piece about Movern Callar in my head right now just itching to get out and be more fully formed (and after that, I'd like to do Ratcatcher and then Le Fils!)- but ah, yes - for more time!

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  12. Its really late.... and I am going to write more later but in case I never do... your review is a work of art in itself. I love the comparison between the movie and the books of O'Connor. Although I respected the movie after watching it I now I feel I understand it. Your words and ideas have elevated the movie to something much more powerful. I love the idea of taking a pretty basic theme and using shock and horror to truly to drive the point home. I love how you examine the use of color in the film as well as sound and memory. Such as the sprinkler scene and how it was trying to tell us her view of the past might not be as accurate as we think. Everything is viewed through the horror of his actions at the high school. Its late and I am tired but you are amazing at this and I would love to talk about O'Connor with you. I would love to read more of your writing and more then anything have you as a writing teacher. One of my teachers in college loved O'Connor and I grew to love her work as well.

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    1. Dear Anon.,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to leave your comments! I am so glad to hear my thoughts on Ramsay's fantastic film found some resonance with you - it is the sort of film, I believe, that reveals itself as all the more densely interesting the more you examine it; my own attempt to write about it certainly brought that about for me.

      I am so happy to hear, too, that you appreciate O'Connor's writing so much - the relationship between what Ramsay is doing here and what O'Connor does in her work is so interesting, I think, and thinking about the relationship helped me unpack the film. I love O'Connor, and while I get to teach some of her stories in my Intro to American Lit class, I'd so love to spend a whole quarter teaching her! Wonderful that a college teacher helped you appreciate her - I only hope I can do the same for my students. If you ever want to chat about O'Connor or this film, shoot me an email - I love to talk books and film! You can reach me through the ajournaloffilm@gmail.com address.

      All the best,
      Melissa

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    2. Thank you so much for responding. I am sure I will have many more questions and topics I would like to discuss with you. I am so happy that you are willing to listen. Ever since I watched the movie I have been wondering. Do you feel the only reason he did not kill his mother was because she was at work? Or do you feel that he wanted her as an audience? I think I know how you will feel but I wanted to make sure.

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    3. If the film is a story that is iltered through Eva's perspective, then I think asking what Kevin's reasons are - and assuming we can find an objective answer - is sort of the wrong question, if you know what I mean. We can't know what Kevin's reasons were - and the end, his "I thought I knew once" response, in any case, demonstrates that even he can't say.

      But if we are to ask a different question, why does EVA think Kevin didn't kill her, I think we can see an answer in the film. Eva filters all of Kevin's actions as a personal attack against her, an assault on her being and sense of self - the destruction of the map room is a good example of that perspective. And Eva sees it as a vicious, devious, manipulative assault, one in which Kevin wants to see her response, wants to see her suffer. So, from that perspective Eva has, Kevin would get no satisfaction from killing Eva - he would get satisfaction from seeing her suffer at the death of something she loved, two someones she loved, to be specific. So I think, that's what the film indicates to us Eva thinks: she thinks of the killing of her husband and daughter as Kevin's assault on her, a way he can watch her suffer. By the end, of course, we see that her perspective has changed - she no longer assumes she knows anything about Kevin and so she asks him outright, "why?" When we hear his answer, we are in the same position as Eva: she doesn't know - she realizes she doesn't know - and so we don't know either.

      I hope that makes sense. I do love the extreme subjectivity of the film - we so long for an objective answer, an answer to "why" Kevin did what he did, but the point is, we are immersed only in Eva's perspective: we make the assumptions she does at first and then, by the end, we see just how shaky those assumptions are. As such the film shows us our own subjectivity, I think - that we are all, in some sense, working through the filters of our own loves, and hates - our own biases. Sometimes, we realize we have those biases and try to tread more carefully, but ultimately, we can never be rid of them. The best we can do is realize we have them.

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    4. And one other reason I've been thinking about, too: Eva clearly sees Kevin as a mirror of herself - and she hates that, of course. She doesn't want any part of him, but again, and again, I think the film shows us her awareness of Kevin as deeply tied to her being, her double almost (think of the way Eva's face becomes Kevin's as it plunges in the water, for example). And I think, too, Eva feels in Kevin that same awareness - that he thinks of her as tied to himself and also hates it. So - if we are to again imagine why Eva would think Kevin would not kill her, I think we can say that from Eva's perspective, Kevin hates her but also understands, as she does, that they are inextricably bound to one another - so Kevin can make her suffer but he can't kill her because he would not kill himself.

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  13. Thank you so much for the wonderful review! I understand the film much better now. I just have a question and hope you respond. Something that struck me in the film is that it seemed to reflect the oedipus complex almost entirely. Kevin seems to 'rape' his mother in the sense that he is constantly violating her personal identity as an independent individual. He also literally kills the father. Do you think the film subverts that at the end by having Eva and Kevin reconcile and identify with each other? Or does this film provide any commentary on that aspect of a mother and child relationship?

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    1. Thanks for your comment, and wow, interesting question! I hadn't thought too much about a Freudian reading of the film, but it certainly seems apt, doesn't it? In addition to the points you mention, Kevin also literally interrupts the sexual intimacy between Eva and Franklin, coming between them in that way, and it could be read as an expression of a sub-conscious desire. It's tricky, though, I think, to try to apply the Oedipus complex too much, simply because the focus there is on the psychology of the child/son, not the mother, and the film is so much about Eva's psychology, not Kevin's, so it's also then difficult to get a handle on what might be signified at the end, in terms of the Oedipal struggle. Eva certainly gives in to the relationship with her son and has let go of that with her husband - she's had to, of course, but we see that she's now channeling her energies towards her son, not towards her memories of her spousal relationship of the past. Does that mean the Oedipal impulse has won, in some way, and if so, what does that mean?

      We do see some indication that Kevin is no longer raging, no longer knows what he wants; he says he doesn't even know why he did what he did, so we could read that as the Oedipal impulse as being resolved - but maybe it's just dissipated.

      We can say the relationship between mother and son will live on - though it's wounded at heart - and live on, we guess, more healthily than it has, without Kevin's rage and without Eva's resistance. So I wonder if the Oedipal element - however destructive - has acted as some kind of expiation?

      Honestly, I'm not sure, but I'll keep thinking about this, and please do let me know if you puzzle out anything more about this. It's really interesting!

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    2. Thank you for replying! It is a very interesting and puzzling way to look at the film. I thought that perhaps with the hug at the end, the two were giving into the oedipal relationship, in the sense that they now give in to completely dominating each other's lives. Usually, characters overcome this oedipal complex by identifying or submitting to the father figure and objectifying the mother figure. But in this film, because Kevin has literally killed his father, there's no way for him to overcome the oedipal stage. Eva was a mother who sort of resisted motherhood and the sacrifice that entails to protect her identity as a powerful, adventurous woman. But at the end as we can see from her preserving Kevin's room at her new house, she has let motherhood consume her whole identity. Hmm.. I'm not sure where I'm going with this but I'm trying to figure out how these two characters (sort of) reconcile at the end, and this seemed lik a plausible explanation.

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    3. Their path also seems to invert Lacan's mirror stage in that Kevin was never given a chance to see himself and his mother as one (the film always show them as almost rivals, never facing each other), but at the end with the hug they become one.

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    4. This is such an eye-opening and fabulous review. There were many facts about the movie, that you mentioned, that never really struck me as being poignant, except of course for the vivid red colour throughout the movie, until I read this review, and it has clarified the movie for me so much more. I remember feeling horrified and uncomfortable throughout the movie, and the final scene was such a powerful and much needed conclusion, if one could call it that.Thanks!

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    5. Anon- my apologies for my delayed reply! I don't have a lot to add, but your point is fascinating and works well with the film, I think: the final scene as an inversion of the Lacan mirror stage. It is, certainly, the first time both Kevin and Eva are honestly facing each other - and embracing the bond between them. (Love that scene so much!)

      Niyati - thanks for reading, and I'm so glad you found my review helpful!!

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  15. My first visit here and now I will have to revisit the film with your comments in mind. I am surprised though, to find such an impressive in-depth look at the film without referencing the novel and its' author, Llionel Shriver. In the linked youtube clip, which I thought you and your readers might appreciate, Ramsay explains that her husband Rory Stewart Kinnear read - and loved - the book first; the two adapted the script together. This isn't a rigid adaptation frame for page, but the essence of the Eva's dynamic with Kevin lies at the heart of Shrivers' 400 plus page deeply disturbing but riveting book. The story starts with the source and that's Shriver. Ramsay also talks about the color red and her use of it:)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cg3tKvlNS4I

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  16. This may work better - http://youtu.be/Cg3tKvlNS4I

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    1. Hi Sim,
      Thanks for visiting and reading and thanks for the comments and links! I've heard another interview with Ramsay in which she discussed Shriver's book, but I've not seen this one - looking forward to watching it in full.

      A couple of things in response:
      1) I did read Shriver's book before watching the film (more about that in a sec), but here, in my analysis, I really felt that I wanted to treat the book and film separately. Ramsay is absolutely using and adapting the book, but I think the film is its own thing and deserves to be treated as such. A masterful film like Ramsay's becomes fully its own thing. It is interesting and perhaps even illuminating to compare book and film, but Ramsay is a different artist - separate from Shriver - working in a different medium, and ultimately, I think her vision can - should, even - be treated on its own.

      2) I agree that Shriver's book is disturbing, unsettling, and riveting; I read it - swallowed it whole more like! - over a few days, and it haunted my mind and feelings. However, in the end, I felt the book held more promise - in its first half - than it delivered by the end. I loved that it raised questions about motherhood and parenting in the way that it did, but I think something went awry in the end, and I wasn't quite sure what the book was actually about - and more specifically, if it really succeeded in being about any one thing very well. I felt that kernels of fascinating ideas were there, but that they were not fleshed out to their conclusion, and I felt that there was almost too much going on in the book - it lost focus, attempting to be about motherhood, parenting, marriage, American politics, American dream/culture, etc. Additionally, the ending - the twist in reference to Franklin - felt quite cheap to me. It did very little to add to the themes; it just felt like a "gotcha!" Overall, I do like Shriver's style - her diction and the underlying, if unfinished, ideas at play. I'd definitely read something else of hers. After I read the book though, I could not wait to see Ramsay's version of the story; I suspected that her vision would be compelling and disturbing in all the ways Shriver's book was, but ultimately more cohesive. I think it was! For me, the book is good. The movie? A masterpiece.

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    2. By the way, Sim, was just looking at your blog a bit, and it seems right up my alley! :) Good stuff! I have a Masters in English lit, and I teach writing and literature at the college level, and so my love for books and film parallels yours! I feel, in some ways, I'm constantly in pursuit of the perfect film version of the books I love. Often, I'm disappointed, and what a film does to a beloved book is painful in the extreme - but the rare film that does capture a book is, as you say in your blog, like heaven! A recent example: Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights was superb, I thought - a stunning film that stands on its own in the film medium, but it also manages to capture the fierce, wild spirit of the book in a way that no other adaptation I've seen of the book does. It's wonderful when I can love both a film AND a book!

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  17. It certainly exerts a fascination filled with dread. I think the biggest thing that I took from it was that in some cases there is no answer-no solution. Perhaps the kid should have received more professional treatment(and perhaps he did, it just wasmn’t shown). But it was almost a self fulfilling prophecy, with an inevitable conclusion.
    The kid’s performance I thought was excellent-although I have to admit I wonder now where they find kids and parents who are prepared to say and do the things that child actors are now called upon to do. And I wonder if this exposure to the extremes of dialogue and actions might actually impact the performers as the grow up.

    But I ceratinly think amongst all the mindless dross out there that this is worth anybody’s time.

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    1. Yes, I agree - it's not really about a solution, but about the exploration of Eva's mind - the guilt, doubt, self-blame, anger, all of it.
      And yes, the performances are wonderful, aren't they?

      Thanks for reading, Alan!

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