A filmmaker is broached with the near impossible task of representing the intricate, psychological evil of Lionel Shriver’s fantastic novel We Need To Talk About Kevin. How do they go about it? Lynne Ramsay, the film’s director, effortlessly simplifies this problem whilst maintaining the book’s original complexity. Her solution? Exploring the concept by simply using the colour red.
The film follows the journey of a mother, Eva, dealing with the moral dilemma of raising her son Kevin, who seems to have an innately malicious nature, and ultimately climaxing in an intense final act of evil (I won’t spoil it just in case). Red is scattered through almost every shot of the film, be it through props, setting, or the overall grading, and is used as a constant reminder of the evil presence in Eva’s life. Kevin’s malignant nature is hinted at throughout his childhood – a loud splatter of red paint from a water gun, a red ball which he menacingly takes control of at the age of two – gradually growing throughout the film and culminating in blazing red beacons after Kevin’s terrible act.
The intensity of this red tone shocks us to such an extent that we almost assume violence is constantly taking place, despite showing very little actual brutality in the film. One of the most poignant scenes of the film shows Eva before the birth of her son blissfully lifted into the air at La Tomatina Festival, tantalisingly unaware of what is to come. She is entirely covered in bright red tomatoes, and swarmed by red-covered bodies, raised into a Christ-like position. Whilst this moment seems one of elation, this overwhelming red undercuts the scene with one of complete dread, foreshadowing the sacrifice she will inevitably make as a mother.
Classics like The Shining and The Sixth Sense have previously used a red motif as a visualisation of evil, yet Ramsay’s use of deep crimson red goes further than this. The fact that this colour is associated with both Kevin and his mother means that Ramsay also brings her culpability into question. When we see Eva’s life after Kevin’s act, it is often overpowered by red – exemplifiedby the scene in which she has to scrape red paint from the front of her house, and metaphorically ‘wash the blood from her hands’. The film never truly answers this question of nature versus nurture, but as we watch the film, the red leans us more towards Kevin as a force of individual evil. Whilst an almost monotonous red is used in Eva’s scenes, it is more of a wash of colour than specific objects of red in Kevin’s scenes, so perhaps Ramsay is hinting to us here that whilst Eva is unfortunately involved, she is not entirely accountable.
Ramsay’s bright red colour palette could seem obvious or overbearing, but the way in which she carefully tailors this technique to reveal further information about its two main characters works incredibly for the tone and message. The overall piece feels gory, raw, and makes us feel completely on edge for its entire duration, fulfilling Ramsay’s wish of taking us to “terrible extremes”. Stripped to its still frames, this film remains a stunning exploration of moral evil, purely from its use of red.