Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller are the stars of We Need To Talk About Kevin; a chilling drama about a mother whose life is shattered after her teenage son goes on a horrific killing spree at high school.
In flashbacks, a gaunt mother remembers her life and its unravelling. Her memories are vivid in both content and colour as she surveys the remnants of her existence; in many ways she has become a dead woman walking. She is Eva Khatchadourian, the protagonist of We Need To Talk About Kevin; the internal conversation she has with herself and her absent husband on the subject of a coldly violent son was author Lionel Shriver’s reaction to the phenomenon of high-school killings following 1999’s Columbine massacre. Adapted for the screen by director Lynne Ramsay, the upcoming cinematic take on We Need To Talk About Kevin features a harrowing central performance by the mercurial Tilda Swinton, trapped in a familiar, upper-class suburbia of dull McMansions where families appear to be nuclear, but are in fact atomised. Especially, it seems, the family she calls her own. The triumphant scenes and enthusiastic reviews that greeted its premiere at Cannes this year were a vindication for director Lynne Ramsay, who also wrote its screenplay with her partner Rory Stewart Kinnear.
Ezra Miller, the 18-year-old who plays Kevin, waxes lyrical about his director from a New York mastering studio. “Lynne Ramsay, I am convinced, is either a goddess or… I don’t know, is there a word for something that includes both the notion of a deity and an evil, dark adversary?” He has a yawp of a laugh and a way with words; his performance as the teenaged title character is by turns charged and blank, an Elizabeth Peyton painting gone rogue. “Lynne Ramsay is ineffable; maybe she’s my favourite everything. She’s awesome, and I thought so before I was hungering to be in this film. I was routinely watching her films before, and those who know about her are passionate about her work. You don’t need to have ‘the conversation’ with a fan of Lynne Ramsay’s films because if someone has seen the work, you already know you’re on the same page.”
As is often the way with films about controversial subjects, the film emerges in a shudderingly complementary climate: our high-summer encounters with We Need To Talk About Kevin and its stars were sandwiched between the season’s most violent events – where we needed to talk about the Utøya massacre (July 2011) and the riots that swept England. An unsettling ephebiphobia – the fear of youth – underpinned the discussion of both incidents as our leaders reacted to fatal iterations of young (and mostly male) alienation. In a secluded suite just off Trafalgar Square, Tilda Swinton pours a cup of tea as she points out an anxiety as old as history itself. “We shall see… All I would say about Norway is, wait for people to start asking questions of Anders Breivik’s mother. It is inevitable that the mother will get some level of the blame, always. It’s just the way it goes. It’s not dissimilar to the questions that people ask of the society out of which these violent people come: the society that gave birth to this man; the mother gave birth to this man – what could possibly have caused it? Of course, there is the reality, which is that we are all alone,” she says bleakly, before slicing the room with gallows humour and a cheeky sideways glance. “The musical version will be next.”
In these situations, it’s hard to imagine what parents must be feeling. “Well, that is the question. I don’t believe the most interesting thing about the book or the film is what Kevin winds up doing,” says Tilda. “The most interesting territory of the film is all that stuff in the middle about how familiar his violence is. For me, the greatest nightmare for Eva is not that his violence, antipathy and misanthropy is exotic and foreign, it’s that it’s absolutely familiar because it is hers. She gives birth to someone who throws back at her all the stuff that belongs to her, which I’d suggest is a worse horror than what happens at the end. It’s interesting that people are, generally speaking, more horrified and disturbed by that disconnect than the intimations of violence. The truth is there’s almost no violence in the film – apart from using tomatoes and lychee and jam in alluding to it, we see very little violence.”
Tilda met Lynne Ramsay six years ago while staying with a mutual friend in New York; initially Tilda offered to produce the film, not planning to take a role. “One of the first drafts of the script that we read, I remember saying to Lynne ‘it’s brilliant, but it’s hard to know who’s going to want to see it,’” she remembers. “But it’s kind of inevitable; it’s a Greek tragedy! It’s cathartic. It’s your worst nightmare, and it’s got about as much to do with the practicalities of bringing up a child, as Rosemary’s Baby has with the practicalities of being pregnant. It’s your worst fantasy. I spoke to someone earlier who said how happy he was to leave the screening to return home to his uncomplicated child. In many ways, it’s a parent’s best trip because all of us can feel very grateful that we don’t have to live this.”
Although the film’s subject matter is dark and its pace relentless, like all the best trips to the cinema, We Need To Talk About Kevin works precisely because of the way it removes the viewer from any kind of comfort zone. Waves of foreboding close in like storm fronts; there is the temporary remedy of black humour, of knowing that the jagged laughter coaxed from the occasional acknowledgement of the absurd situation of the family is only a brief respite before Kevin hits another target. The result is a powerfully disorienting and valuable work of art. “It seems to be very cathartic for people to see this film, but we’ll see how it goes,” says Tilda, shaking herself out as if miming that process. She sighs grandly and leans back into an overstuffed sofa. “In another few months, I’m sure we’ll probably have other similar headlines to Norway to cope with, where we’ll wonder about another mother’s nightmare. Instead, and in the meantime, why not let’s try to keep our minds on the millions and zillions of people out there who are not doing this, and the millions of mothers out there who do not have violent sons.”
We Need To Talk About Kevin is released in UK cinemas today.
See the full interview in The Dreams and Aspirations Issue.
Text: Susan Corrigan