We Need To Talk About Kevin Explained: A Haunting Portrayal of American Violence
If you asked me to make a list of the best horror films from the last decade, We Need to Talk about Kevin would be on it. Yes, I consider it a horror film. Directed by Lynne Ramsey, and based on the 2003 novel by Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk about Kevin is a chilling portrayal of a child who grows up to murder his classmates and family, leaving his mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton), alone to deal with the aftermath. Kevin (Ezra Miller) never gives any real explanation for the murder, but he is symbolic of America’s violence and white, middle-class complacency. This is especially true when you consider that the novel was published just four years after Columbine. Further, the film offers a grim portrayal of motherhood and the countless sacrifices a mother makes for the family.
The Color Red and Eva’s Sacrifices
Shriver’s novel is told solely from Eva’s point of view, structured as letters she writes to her dead husband, trying to process what occurred. While it’s difficult to capture this type of narration in a film, Ramsey still centers the story around Eva. The fragmented narrative jumps back and forth between the present, as Eva struggles to piece her life together following the tragedy, and the past, as she remembers key incidents throughout Kevin’s life, eventually leading to the murders.
The film opens with a scene of Eva at La Tomatina, a Spanish Tomato festival held yearly in the town of Bunol, east of Spain. The bodies, including Eva’s, are drenched in red, a color that’s a motif throughout the film, foreshadowing the violence that will transpire as Kevin ages. Yet, when the camera zooms in on Eva, she crowd surfs with her eyes closed, her arms outstretched in a Christ-like pose. This occurs before she has children, and her pose makes her look like a martyr. It symbolizes the freedom that she’ll sacrifice, including the ability to travel and enjoy life on her own terms, once she has kids.
Red shows up in several other scenes. Kevin and Eva wear the color often, and Ramsey uses red lighting frequently. In another scene, a six-year-old Kevin smears red paint over the walls of Eva’s home office. After the flashback at the tomato festival, the film cuts to the present. Shortly after Eva lands a job at a travel agency, she pulls up to her downgraded home and discovers someone has splattered red paint all over the front of the house. This underscores the psychological violence Eva faces daily from a community who despises her and blames her for the murders Kevin committed.
The Pains of Motherhood
Even the night that Kevin is conceived has a foreboding feeling to it. As Eva and her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) prepare to have sex, he whispers, “Is it safe?” She answers, “No, it’s not safe.” Yet, they still proceed. Then, an alarm clock flashes 12:00 in bright red, before ticking to 12:01. This alarm clock warns that what they just did will have dire consequences. As the minute hand changes, it’s clear their lives will not be the same.
During the pregnancy, Eva stares at her baby bump in the mirror, and during Lamaze class, her facial expressions show disgust about her body and the other women around her. Ramsey zooms in on the enlarged tummies to reinforce the point. During the birth, Eva howls in pain as the camera zooms in again, this time on her contorted face. There is nothing pleasant about childbirth depicted in the film.
Kevin, meanwhile, exhibits several behavioral problems from the get-go. No matter what Eva does, he cries and cries and cries. His frequent wails distress and tire Eva. When he’s a few years older, his speech is delayed, and potty training lasts until he’s six.
Eva’s frustration explodes a few times. At one point, she yells, “Mommy was happy before Kevin came along. Did you know that? Now Mommy wakes up every morning and wishes she was in France.” In a later scene, enraged over Kevin’s refusal to potty train, Eva throws him to the ground, breaking his arm. We see his scar from the incident on his arm when he’s in jail. Additionally, in another flashback, Kevin scratches it to remind Eva what she did to him. He uses it to get his way, guilt-tripping her as a form of psychological violence.
Family Dynamics and Franklin’s Enabling of Kevin
Kevin uses Franklin to drive a wedge between his parents, but Franklin also enables or dismisses his son’s behavior. Kevin frequently acts nicer towards Franklin. Further, the dad buys his son several bow and arrow sets, including a plastic one when he’s a little kid. Eventually, he’ll murder his classmates, father, and kid sister with such a weapon.
Symbolically, the weapon is aligned with the masculine, as Franklin thinks he’s bonding with Kevin over it, watching him target practice during various phases of his life. Eva, meanwhile, watches through the window, distant and unable to have the bond she thinks father and son have.
To add, Franklin never understands Eva’s desires and tends to side with Kevin every single time there is conflict. He ignores the pains of motherhood. Early on, when Kevin is a baby and Eva finally gets him to sleep. Once home, Franklin picks him up and wakes him, despite Eva’s pleas to let him sleep. “You just gotta rock him a little. He’s alright,” Franklin says, totally unaware that Eva spent every minute of her day trying to get the kid to sleep.
When Kevin is a few years old, Franklin insists that they move out of New York City and buy a bigger house, to Eva’s dismay. When they pull up to the new home, Franklin calls it a castle. The scene then shifts to Eva and Kevin sitting in an empty, spacious room, not saying a word to each other. The new house only drives more distance between Eva and Kevin and Eva and Franklin. A larger house solves none of their problems, and it’s another example of Franklin ignoring Eva’s wants and desires. It’s another sacrifice she makes for her family. She gives up city life to please her husband.
Did Kevin Have a Motive?
Throughout the novel, Eva questions whether she’s responsible for the murders. Was she a bad parent? Eva is much more sympathetic in Ramsey’s adaptation. Though it’s true Eva did not want to be a mom, Kevin did have a regular middle-class lifestyle. He grew up in a nice house, and his mom generally tried to bond with him more than a few times.
In what’s either a TV interview shortly after the murder or a dream Eva has, Kevin does offer an explanation (sort of). Looking at the camera, he says that people go to work, come home, and watch TV. Nothing really happens, he adds. Yet, people enjoy watching people like him. As he says this, the camera zooms in on his face. Kevin speaks directly to the audience and the film viewers. This is a loose commentary, perhaps, on Americans’ thirst for violence, their fascination with real-life killers. Kevin calls them out.
In the high school gymnasium where the murder occurs, Kevin, holding his bow, takes a bow before an American flag and then stretches out his arms, making a Christ-like pose. Here, the film circles back to the first scene of Eva at the tomato festival. This scene indicates that maybe Kevin sees himself as a martyr. The placing of the American flag in the frame also underscores how violence is part of American culture. Since the film’s release 10 years ago, mass shootings are now commonplace.
In the final scene, when Eva visits Kevin in jail again, she says that she wants to know why. Kevin answers, “I used to think I knew. Now I’m not so sure.” Here, Kevin’s hard façade softens. His head is shaved, and he has some scratches on his face. Perhaps jail has made him remorseful and scared. Eva hugs him, and Kevin doesn’t resist.
Violence As Part of American Culture
The fact Kevin has no clear motive and has always exhibited violent behavior is what makes We Need to Talk about Kevin so disturbing. He’s a white boy who comes from a middle-class lifestyle and grows up to be a killer. He’s symbolic of American carnage and the tragedies that have become more widespread since Columbine. The grieving community, meanwhile, turns on Eva and views her to be as monstrous as her son. This form of psychological violence is just as horrifying.
We Need to Talk about Kevin is a painful depiction of the human as a monster. It confronts American violence in an honest fashion while critiquing middle-class lifestyle and complacency. It’s also an unflattering portrayal of motherhood and the pains and sacrifices that come with it.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.