Moreover, finishing with Kevin, a film that examines the maternal aftermath of a Columbine-style school massacre, was likely to put a bit of a dampener on the Breaking Dawn frivolity and fluff. After all, the controversial, award-winning book by Lionel Shriver, a woman whose name has her often confused for a man, had utterly destroyed me.
The book wrestles with myriad complex and taboo topics, not least whether killers are born or made and whether it’s a mother’s fault if her son turns out to be very, very bad. The narrative base is that accomplished business-woman and traveller Eva Khatchadourian never quite bonds with her son, Kevin. The book charts this difficult relationship.
It offers a subjective, guilt-ridden, hindsight-is-a-beautiful-thing analysis on the before and after: before, Kevin is a difficult child; after, he is a jailed killer of his fellow school students, whom he slayed in the school gymnasium. The tale is told through Khatchadourian’s diary-like letters to her husband, Kevin’s father, during which she says ‘We need to talk about Kevin’.
I still didn’t know what I thought about the book, which I read years ago, when I saw the film just last week. It was the kind of book that floored and haunted me simultaneously, with Shriver weaving a complex world not where one person is good and another evil, but one where there are shades of grey on top of shades of grey on top of shades of grey.
What I did know is that although she wouldn’t have come to mind as the person best cast as Khatchadourian, as soon as I heard Tilda Swinton was I was absolutely certain there was no one more perfect to play that role. And perfect she was.
Kevin was always going to be difficult to translate to screen because it’s wholly introspective, based on the protagonist’s penned letters about her thoughts and feelings. Swinton was simply magic as Khatchadourian, not overplaying it, but conveying loneliness, horror, and self- and socially-inflicted torture with such nuance I could watch her and her alone all day.
Unfortunately, while Swinton was flawless, the film as a whole struggled with the translation difficulties. The mentally tormenting coulda, would, shoulda of the book’s letters were hard to verbalise, in particular, as Khatchadourian spent much of the film on her own.
I entered the film armed by enough tissues to cater for me and three friends—one of whom who’d read the book and been similarly affected; two who knew not what they were about to encounter. It’s telling, then, that not one of us needed a tissue. Nor did we spend hours, post-movie, dissecting its angles (instead we talked non-stop about the aforementioned Breaking Dawn).
But I will say that the film was exquisitely shot. One friend replied ‘Uhoh’ when I told her that. ‘If you’re commenting on the cinematography,’ she said, ‘you weren’t really taken on the journey.’ No, I sadly wasn’t, but I did feel that I was watching beautiful, otherwise impressive art for the most part.
The recurring use of red, for instance, was well executed. As was the composition of the shots. The handwashing had hallmarks Lady Macbeth’s ‘out damn spot’. The moments that highlighted and compounded Khatchadourian’s isolation, such as the vandalism of her house and the smashing of her carton of eggs, were perfectly chosen.
The appearance of the bow and arrow set and father-son bonding as Kevin learnt to use it was made all the more eery and sinister by the seemingly fun sequence within which it was set. The lecherous co-worker who turns nasty when politely rebuffed as well as the moment Khatchadourian realises her son was not the victim but the perpetrator, courtesy of spotting some distinctive bike locks he’d used to barricade his victims in, were outstanding.
Unfortunately, those moments weren’t enough to convey the subtleties of the book and its issues—a kind of ‘the book’s better than the movie’ scenario. So, while I’d definitely recommend seeing Kevin, I’d recommend even more strongly reading the book.