Nature or nurture, that age-old debate about what makes us what we are, is laid out on screen for all to see in Lynne Ramsay’s film, We Need To Talk About Kevin. Through the memories of a once successful travel writer, Eva (Tilda Swinton), Ramsay retrospectively takes us on a stilted, troubled journey through the childhood of Kevin (Ezra Miller)- until his committing of an heinous crime at the age of 15.
Tilda Swinton, in a brilliantly sedate performance, is adept at playing the broken woman and strained mother, constantly worrying about her mental and physical distance from her son, his intense lack of morality played fantastically by 3 child actors, culminating in a brooding Ezra Miller. John C. Reilly, whose clown without makeup face at first seems incongruous to the mood of the film, subtly works in tandem with Swinton as the popular, oblivious, flippant father, Franklin.
Eva is a women who feels responsible for her child and feels powerless to stop this relentless force of nature: right from Kevin’s birth, where her only respite from his incessant crying is to stand by a pneumatic drill, to his despicable crime, only revealed in detail towards the end of the film. Kevin’s victims’ parents, and most of the female population in town, blame her for this lack of control , having litigated her out of home and job. The men tolerate her with a polite wave and a grimace; the women, aghast at her supposed failure as a mother, resort to physical assault. Throughout the series of vignettes from Kevin and Eva’s life together, we start to empathise with Eva’s situation, raising a child whom the phrase “little shit” becomes increasingly appropriate. At only two points are mother and son seen bonding, both times when Kevin is vulnerable and needs her most.
Ramsay’s method of slow release of the facts helps to mould our opinion of the main protagonists and who or what to blame for this child’s actions. She portrays the relationship as a battle of tortured spirits, both parent’s and child’s lives disrupted by each other’s presence. We have a priveleged window into their struggle for supremacy and control. The symbolism of Eva carrying the sins of her son, is starkly outlined by the vivid use of red in almost every scene. From the red paint spattered shack she tries to clean through the whole picture, to the cans of tomato soup she hides behind to avoid a confrontation with a victim’s mother and a happier Eva covered in tomato juice at La Tomatina festival during her halcyon days as free spirited journalist.
The issue of nature over nurture is never resolved in the film and rightly so. This has not even been resolved in thousands of years of human existence. Kevin’s twisted nature is never doubted nor are the detrimental efforts of both parents. The extent of Kevin’s crimes, finally revealed to us at the end of the film, ultimately help us to empathise with Eva and her unbroken, yet strained love for her son, who left her a legacy of pain, loss and blame.