The paralysing deconstruction and perversion of intimacy, eroticism and death in Lynne Ramsay’s ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’

In We Need to Talk about Kevin the spectator witnesses the via dolorosa of Eva, whose name means ‘mother of the living ones’ and ‘life-giver’ and who suffers from her distorted motherhood and the resulting dysfunctional relationship with her son Kevin. Laura U. Marks’ observations on mimesis and death, sensual alienation from the self confronted to the world and ultimately the location and consistency of memories and Jennifer M. Barker’s reflections on the film as a body with its language and its interaction with the body, the senses and the mind of the viewer are perfectly compatible with the themes and effects of WNTTAK. By predominantly focusing on three key-scenes (the opening sequence ‘La Tomatina’, the ball scene and the prison scenes) and the overall recurrent and intertwined imagery the theme of mimesis is embodied in the cinematography, the mother and son shots, scenes, their relationship, outer appearances, colours and bodies, and an emotional/visual mimesis arises in the spectator. Out of a constantly re-paralysed motherhood the interdependent mimesis between Eva and Kevin deconstructs and perverts the socially acceptable and enduring forms of intimacy, eroticism and death especially in the mother and son constellation, but in fact out of this precise disturbance of naturalism and order an eye-catching bond occurs, bound to the screen, bound to Eva and to Kevin, to the ‘spectacle’, as Kevin himself sharply remarks in a breaking of the fourth wall sequence whilst he is interrogated, filmed and ‘multi-sided-ly’ watched. Both are bound through life, death, punishment and self-punishment, social hatred and seclusion and through the form of the film that lays bare two selves, maybe one and the same, moulded by each other, attacking and being attacked by the world, looking into and at each other through silence, imitation, reviving memories and sensual provocations. WNTTAK has a body full of language and a language full of bodies encapsulating the viewer who has the ‘master-vision’ of the film through the extroverted insight of Eva’s memory and the omnipresent camera, or is it really Kevin looking into us and revealing ourselves by watching (him)?

The opening scene is introduced through a short sequence in which an open living room window is slowly approached and the dominant colours are shades of black, green and white, which will then re-occur in the end. The image is filled with the recurrent sound of an accelerating lawn sprinkler and echoing screams that foreshadow Kevin’s final ‘coup’. The sterile close-up of the white curtains will soon be covered up with screams, redness and a human crowd looking like new-borns. Once the viewer sees through the window and its light curtains there seems to be no turning back and he/she ‘time travels’ into a flashback of an intermingling web of human flesh. What the spectator has seen at this point already hints at the unchronological story-telling, the use of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds, the past leading to the continuous ending of the present determining and clarifying the ongoing present. The window sequence and the following ‘La Tomatina’ sequence already open up the symbolical themes of contrast, cleansing, whiteness and redness. Whereas the open window suggests fresh air in the curtains’ movement through the wind, the almost suffocating nuzzling and rubbing of wet skins that succeeds imposes a sense of constriction and squash upon the spectator who stares from above but soon ends up in the middle of it all. It might imply the ambivalent inner life of an impregnated womb filling up the entire screen, the exploding tomatoes thrown and splattering like the water drops of the lawn sprinkler again hinting at Kevin’s splicing massacre and its stigmatising impact on Eva’s existence within or rather without society.

As the camera moves from a bird’s eye view closer to the people one observes traversing arm gestures expanding the personal spatial sphere to liberate the proper body from the oppression of the others and to emerge from the imprisoning skins and fleshes. Tomatoes are unselectively thrown at everybody or nobody, but one must immediately think of targeting a public scapegoat like Eva or attacking random victims like Kevin. The motherhood and guilt symbolism of WNTTAK offers several perspectives. In the middle of this tightly interwoven crowd Eva enjoys her anonymity and freedom. A bucket full of mashed tomatoes is emptied on heads as in a baptism, a man carries a woman like a mother would carry her child, people poke each other and fall into the blood-like liquid that buries them, some get up and the feet of others bespatter them with the tomato juice, followed by a shot where a man is lying in a vagina-like flooded crevice amidst two ‘labia’ of people and he moves rebelliously and diffusively. Then the camera introduces Eva from a lower angle staring up at her being elevated by other people’s hands. Christ-like she is carried amongst the red sea and the music deteriorates into something cruel and Eva is smiling until she suddenly stops. Her body buckles, voices that do not belong to the on-screen event but to an unseen flashback Eva thinks about and envisions, cry and screech, the spectator hears what Eva thinks about in her head and what really happened and how it sounded. Although the travel to Spain was before the barbaric event (as one can see Eva’s long braided hair), one can somehow see that Eva’s body reacts in accordance with the momentary sounds of the ‘film’. She is lowered and covered by the upper bodies of three men and vanishes under them. Lying in the fragmented sauce people besprinkle her and suddenly she reacts revoltingly, rejecting the juice by turning her head around, her mimic alternates, she closes her eyes, hides her face with her arms and then the camera stops with a close-up of a red slopping puddle.

As Marks discusses the body through or as the memory or vice versa (Marks, 2000: 142) one can state that the spectator is as much situated in Eva’s a priori and a posteriori mind through the chaotic sounds and mixed flashbacks, in her memories and ‘daydreams’ through the visualisation of her triggering daily routine and her remembering facial expressions, in the perspectives of her past and present through her nostalgia and her retrospective reliving. But the spectator finds him/herself occasionally aborted from her state of mind and her emotional capacities and observes her from an outside view as an individual body burdened with colour, guilt, banishment and hatred malfunctioning in a society that craves to amputate her from its social body. One other facet would be that Eva emotionally ‘resists’ to give birth to her inner being which would then become ‘something’ outer ‘on display’ until she physically succumbs to the violent act of expulsion, of loss or of liberation of ‘something’ she could not even relate to in her proper womb and even then felt alienated by it. Her abandoning skin of protection is her deserted house and her car, both are stained and branded by the accusing red colour, never to make her forget and she punishes herself by accepting the punishments of others, she lives with it, with the shame and the anger, enduring the social stigmatisations reminding the viewer of the endlessly enduring martyr Saint Sebastian. Especially in the punch in the face, the supermarket and the car scene on Halloween one sees how afraid and terrified she is of people’s reactions towards her, even more so when they are unscrupulous because they are wearing masks and they associate her with Kevin which is a mimesis that does not give her ‘shelter […] from the shock of the world’ (Marks, 2000:143).

Kevin and Eva are anachronistically and symbolically juxtaposed, intertwined and opposed to each other, mainly in the recurrent and mimetic structure of the scenes where she visits him in prison which is the leitmotif of the entire film. They look and stare at each other, associatively, seeking identification, understanding or differing deviations, dipping their faces into water that resembles amniotic fluid, fruitful, cleansing, drowning, almost like an interchanging metamorphosis. When Eva looks into the mirror she sees her lost self, she hears and visualises her murdered family, but she sees what is left of her in her mirror-image and that is Kevin and she is frozen by it. It is not just her own staring she is subjected to, but also the observing staring of Kevin, neighbours, colleagues, parents and the viewer and whereas Kevin enjoys himself as the object of scopophilia and as a spectacle, Eva feels threatened, disclosed, cornered and frightened by it. The image of her pregnancy on the inside and on the outside is aligned with the process of copying and a close-up of her left eye, being the feminine side, implying that she is copied, her flaws, her violence, she looks at herself introspectively, what the copy of her, the reproduction was able to do, feeling that conceiving Kevin was as ‘unsafe’ as she thought, her eye disturbingly breaking the fourth wall for a quick shot. Whereas other women proudly display their pregnancies and confront Eva with theirs and thereby hers, she reacts with introversion and resignation, covering up, not revealing, actually leaving and looking away almost disgusted, overtaken by a stampede of jolly ballerinas.

In a frontal shot Eva sits there awaiting her other half or worse half, her son, she is nervous and insecure, the mise-en-scène is obscure. As Kevin walks into the room, where his mother is merely a visitor in many ways, her body and her facial expression are almost petrified by terror and tension, eyes lowered but seeking, lips pressed tightly together and then the invisible action begins whereas the viewer ‘only’ watches Eva and Eva watches Kevin. She tries to feel comfortable looking at him, to familiarise herself with her flesh and blood sitting in front of her, but she stares in agony, in misunderstanding, abandoned by answers and full of questions. One hears Kevin biting off his nails, an act of repulsing violence, of self-destruction, mutilating what she created by demonstratively biting it of in front of her eyes, enjoying her patient attention. A close-up of Kevin’s fingers fishing for the excavated nail on his tongue already suggests a recurrent similarity between himself and his mother as there is an almost exact same twin-close-up of Eva who is fishing for a sharp piece of an eggshell on her tongue, both finding it and pulling it out, ritualistically aligning nails and eggshell pieces on the desk and on the plate, like mother, like son. Eva is observing him in disgust as he embodies her proper mannerisms constantly reminding her that he came out of her body. Whilst he is silently but effectively horrifying her she scratches her nail bed under the desk in counteraction and as an agitated reaction. She tries to say something but she can’t as there is nothing to say at this moment. They sit in front of each other, in related silence, in miscomprehension, in awareness of the other, but in separation, the desk representing the hollow gap between them. The scar on Kevin’s arm fills the screen, his finger caressing it and she relates to it, to pain, to a shared memory and he almost reacts with pride, the viewer sees Eva’s desolate and guilt-ridden face and Kevin’s ‘used to provoke and remind’ scar of motherhood which is repeated in another car scene. He paralyses every single effort of hers to connect with him as a mother. They almost look like twins, undiscovered and alienated copies of each other sitting next to each other in the car glancing into the void whilst the viewer is looking at them in irritation.

During Eva’s pregnancy she is already unable to bond with the being that is growing in her belly, she looks at her mirror-image as though it was deforming her, as if she was transforming into something she could not relate to. Even though it is her created flesh and blood there seems to be no sympathising form of intimacy and this revolting impulse is circulating and intertwined with Kevin. The natural intimacy of motherhood seems to be unattainable for Eva especially as Kevin grows older, but the viewer recognises more and more similarities, gestures (touching s strand of hair), mutual language of silence, expressions, attitudes, maybe they are truly natural or they are another reflecting and criticising provocation of Kevin. She gave birth to another version of herself she cannot handle which is especially seen in her disappointment that nothing is physically wrong with Kevin because in this case there is no reason she could hold on to or justify his behaviour, it ‘just’ comes from within, or from her within, it is unknown and that makes it difficult to bear.

The ball scene demonstrates Kevin’s efforts to further paralyse Eva’s desperate attempts to awaken a form of relationship between the two. The camera first focuses on Kevin with Eva’s voice heard in the background, then switches to her with a part of him blurred in the left angle of the camera until they are both included in a profile shot sitting in front of each other as in the several prison scenes where they are opposed to each other, with confronted bodies and turned away bodies, with mutual eye-contact, one-sided or none at all. Here Eva is trying to articulate and provoke a ‘dialogue’ with Kevin as a child, but rather fails to get him to talk and call her ‘mommy’. Kevin stares at her and waits for something he can use in connection with her. She wants him to push back the red ball at her which seems like a power dynamics game, or a rejection of guilt play, where the ball gets pushed in Kevin’s direction, but there is no reaction to the body language accusation, it recoils as he cannot relate to accusations against his favour, Eva takes up the burden again, but wants to share it again as in a vicious circle where both of them assume their responsibilities until something happens that is familiar to Kevin. In her frustration and aggression she hits the ball with her hand and reveals her anger to Kevin, then she rolls it at him and then in coexistence with her anger he rolls it back at her as he saw a glimpse of himself, of ‘honesty’ in her. Then after she has shown happiness and satisfaction at his reaction, he withdraws again from the ‘game’ and his mother and her expectations. Although there are certain brief moments of intimacy they are quickly destroyed once they appear on the surface. Several parallels could be drawn here, mainly the reading of Robin Hood scene, introducing him to his tool and art of future active violence without her knowledge which attracts him to her in this moment, the aping her speech scene where she hits his hand, the destruction of her ‘personality’ room where she tramples down his colour pistol and the scene where she exasperatedly throws him in the corner which makes him ‘respect’ her because for him that was an isolated incident of an honesty display where she showed her real feelings towards him without suppressing and channelling it.

Faced with a post-traumatic hostile neighbourhood and environment Eva’s isolated self can be compared to the butter and jam sandwich that Kevin spits on and smashes against the glass desk in front of her eyes and which gets nibbled by pismires, transparent, pressed against the surface, the screen, ready to be dissected, analysed and judged, the same counts for Kevin, whereas he fuels his ego with the media’s perversely obsessed anti-hero attention, Eva shies away, ‘she has been done to death’, a carcass of a sandwich society feeds itself on, poking her because Kevin is ‘protected’ by walls. Another form of ‘interplay’ between mother and son is their reactionary revenge actions, including a second pregnancy that is again predicted by an eye close-up and Kevin deliberately continuing to masturbate in front of Eva because she almost never knocks on closed doors and simply walks in ‘without asking permission’. The entire film is filled with death symbolism details mainly in red, faded orange and yellow, such as the red wine stains on the table, the box of Eva’s pills, the red apple and candle, the interior decoration, the red colour mixed with the rain running over the windows of Eva’s house, her car and the ‘bloody’ windscreen, her omelette with ketchup, her decorated room with Kevin’s yellow, black and red colour sprinkles, her hands and shoes full of red colour, the yellow locks, the red high school doors and the list goes on.

In Eva’s deserted house she reconstructs Kevin’s room up to the smallest detail, one even gets the impression that Kevin’s belongings were the only things she saved or recuperated before losing everything, painting it blue, a cold colour that Kevin is decorated with throughout the film, or in stripes foreshadowing his future behind bars. It seems like she is desperately trying to revive her past through her memories but at the same time reconstructing it with her actions, possibly erasing it, recreating it or repainting it, or maybe it was the only thing she attributes to life, but the re-emerging red colour reminds her of her ‘death’, her daughter’s, her husband’s and Kevin’s victims’. Even Kevin seems to capture himself somewhere in the past as he outgrows his boyish t-shirts (for example a white one with red sprinkled dots) but still wears them which presents him in a sexualised way as his skin is often laid bare. Kevin’s destructive nature is also shown in the scene where he demonstratively chews a litchi as if it were the ‘lost’ eye of his sister, when he figuratively scrunches the cereal as if he would inflict pain and when he shoots an arrow on the window with Eva’s face behind it, the close-up of his eyes reflecting the target.

Interwoven with the shots where the shooting of arrows and the screams are heard, the targeted victims are seen as they are carried out of the school and Kevin bows before an invisible audience are quick red shots of Eva reacting to ‘invisible’ arrow shots that seem to pierce her through the precise use of editing, so Kevin indirectly shoots arrows at her too with his final massacre and the image of Saint Sebastian reoccurs. The ending prison scene starts with a profile shot of Kevin with a frontal blurred perspective of Eva, then he turns his head at her and is blurred whilst she gets clear. As they both absorb each other with their penetrating eye-contact they both apprehend that they do not look happy and it seems like this is the first emotional dialogue they have. The way she wants to know ‘why’ Kevin did this suggests a rather ambiguous question, either why he killed these people, his sister, his father, or why he is what and who he is or why he kept her alive. The expression of Kevin’s eyes changes and softens and a glimpse of vulnerability, remorse and humanness appears and for the first time he gives the viewer an insight into his unvarnished self. His response is something that Eva can only too well familiarise herself with, she stays and she always comes back. Maybe this was her last punishment from him and from herself as she nods in absurd satisfaction. They understand each other without further verbal articulation. He stands up, the façade falls and for the first time they hug in an honest reciprocal way which reminds the spectator of the handshake in sickness scene signifying that ‘even if we are members of opposite teams, for example, by shaking hands, we agree to overlook our differences in the service of a larger goal. In this way, the handshake at its most basic is a gesture of reciprocity’ (Barker, 2009: 93).

red tomatoes on board
Photo by Engin Akyurt on


Barker, M. J. (2009) The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Marks, U. L. (2000) The Skin of the Film, Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, Durham and London: Duke University Press.

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