Women & Horror: Lynne Ramsay explores motherhood and identity in ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’

Women & Horror” is a four-part series of features on horror films directed by women.

Content warning: This article discusses plot details, which include disturbing behavior and school-related violence.

“What mama did was very, very wrong, and she’s so, so sorry,” Eva (Tilda Swinton) tells her son, Kevin (Jasper Newell, et al.), in Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. The apology is for breaking Kevin’s arm, resulting from an act in which she threw him across his room in anger over his vindictive, bad behavior. As the mother and son solemnly sit together in the car, Eva mouths and hesitates a few times before saying her apology. Even then, with her apology, she distances herself from the act, from Kevin, and from motherhood. Instead of referring to herself in the first person, she says that it is “mama” who is sorry.

Eva, a travel writer, gave up her life in the city and her freedom to have a child with her husband (John C. Reilly). From the days of her pregnancy to raising Kevin, Eva draws a line between her own identity as a person and her identity as a mother. In reaction to her refusal to merge her own sense of self with motherhood, Kevin crosses Eva’s carefully-placed lines, invading and corrupting her space, both physical and emotional, to unvarying degrees. Not only is Eva’s resistance to accepting the societal expectations associated with the motherhood a sign of her ambivalence toward it, Kevin’s invasion of her life turns motherhood into a state of horror.

As much as Eva attempts to use control and order to distance herself from motherhood, Kevin doubles down in his effort to make it impossible for her to do so. In the aforementioned scene, Kevin, who is around 5 years old, provokes Eva’s attack by purposely defecating in his diaper after she had just changed him. While a child’s provocation hardly justifies Eva’s eruption of anger, it exemplifies how deeply frustrating and challenging it is for her to maintain ambivalence toward her role as a mother. She still resists after the fact, by apologizing as “mama” and not as Eva.

With Eva as Kevin’s main target, she feels the full force of Kevin’s otherness in her life. Kevin revels in the abject, and so does Ramsay by employing repeated close-ups that remind the audience of “the uncontrollable otherness of the body,” as noted in this analysis of the film. However, as Kevin (Ezra Miller) gets older, his otherness takes on a refined—and thus, more disturbing—quality. For example, the way Kevin bites his fingernails, a habit that likely prickles Eva because how the film focuses on the sound of his teeth tearing into his nails so clearly, is unnerving, but the fact that he lines up the scraps neatly in a row is an example of Kevin reinterpreting and twisting Eva’s sense of order and control. He does something similar in another scene by rolling pieces of the bread in perfect little spheres when Eva takes him out to dinner. These small acts are emphasized by Ramsay’s close-ups and use of sound, showing precisely how they all contribute to unbalancing Eva’s world.

Not long before Kevin’s assault on his school, Eva sees Kevin standing outside the bookstore staring at a large poster of herself, advertising her book. This odd act from Kevin is seen from across the street, a wide shot instead of a close-up, and with how quickly Kevin flickers away, it puts into question if he was truly there. When she asks him about it at home, he denies being there. His confrontation with this side of her—the side of her as a career woman, a woman free of the limits of motherhood, the side of her she happily embraces—is a reminder to Kevin about how she assigned less devotion to him so that she could pursue her own objectives. Ultimately, Kevin seems to demand what society expects of mothers: their full and uncompromised devotion to their children.

Eva eventually feels the full weight of motherhood, and the unescapable duality of caring for a psychopathic child is a horror in and of itself. Even after Kevin murders his classmates, she stands by his side to get him a softer sentence and faces an onslaught of abuse from a community still hurting from his actions. At first, it is perplexing why she does that, especially when she always seems at the precipice of escape. However, Kevin succeeds in totaling upending and invading her life. Her present is full of otherness: a house and car splashed in red paint, a wine-stained kitchen table, a dozen smashed eggs, and an incarcerated murderer of a son. The Eva she held onto for so long is either gone or fully merged into her identity as a mother; the state of horror she edged around for years becomes fully realized and unescapable.


We Need to Talk about Kevin is streaming on Hulu, Prime Video, and Tubi.


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