We Need to Talk About Kevin

I’ve never understood people who somehow blame the parents of psycho kids who go on school shooting sprees — especially if the parents hadn’t been demonstrably abusive. Some kids — some humans — are just broken, that’s all; they come out that way, stone cold and unreachable, and it doesn’t matter how much love they get at home. It could be, indeed, that the more love they get from their parents — the more coddling, the more enabling — the harder they calcify into madness. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, the long-overdue third feature directed by Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar), Tilda Swinton plays Eva, the mother of a son who just plain comes out wrong. Nothing she can do helps; she tries and tries to get through to him, but he — Kevin — is intractable and difficult right from the start. He goes way beyond just being a brat. He’s brilliant, and emotionally incomplete, and he seems to decide very early on that his mother is his nemesis and that he will devote himself to putting her through hell.

The movie unfurls in fragments, bouncing around through time, the main signifier being the length of Eva’s hair (in the earlier bits, before her life has completely fallen apart, she has a stylishly short style; later on, it’s longer and lifeless). What we gather is that Kevin, now a teenager, has gone on a school rampage, and that this has destroyed Eva’s life. In flashbacks, we see her living with her son, her clueless husband (John C. Reilly), and her younger daughter in a huge house without many neighbors around. (The remoteness of the house becomes important later.) As a best-selling writer of travel books, Eva can afford the set-up. In the present-day scenes she’s renting a ratty suburban house and toiling as a secretary in a — insult-to-injury here — travel agency. Everywhere she goes, she stands a good chance of being insulted, being physically attacked, or having her property vandalized by the grieving parents of the fellow students Kevin killed. Her life is effectively over. We sense that the only reason she doesn’t OD on a bottle of pills and a bottle of the red wine she’s always chugging is that she needs to hear Kevin — whom she visits in the juvie institution — explain why he did it. As if there could be an explanation.

We Need to Talk About Kevin isn’t the kind of film that provides such a reason. What it does do, with stomach-freezing efficacy, is to swim around inside the pain of a parent whose child is a monster. (Another recent film, last summer’s Beautiful Boy, probed the same sort of wound.) But we also see that Eva is not entirely innocent. I said before that she tries and tries, but some people are cut out to be parents and some are not; some have the patience for a particularly recalcitrant child and some don’t. As it happens, Eva’s relationship with the younger daughter, Celia, seems perfectly healthy, if only because Celia doesn’t smear sandwiches on glass tables or shit herself to spite Eva. It can also happen that parents make all their mistakes with the first kid and are mellower with the subsequent ones. Whatever the case, we’re shown that Kevin gave Eva trouble right from birth, literally from birth. The only time he cuts her some slack is when he’s sick and he develops an interest in the Robin Hood storybook she’s reading to him, which in turn forms an interest in archery.

This is easily the most mainstream film Lynne Ramsay has made, though it’s still far from ready for prime time. A lot of it, thematically and symbolically, is very neat; a little too neat. There are the obvious images of Eva straining throughout the movie to clean up red paint that’s been splattered across the front of her house, with many close-ups of her washing the paint off her hands. Yes, we get it; out, damn’d spot! We also get that every hapless interaction she endures with Kevin marches them both irreversibly towards his massacre. When we see that little Celia has two healthy eyes in some scenes and an eyepatch in others, we tense up and wait to find out how that happened (remembering all the while Kevin’s affinity for arrows). When Celia gets a plump little hamster for Christmas, we wait to see what Kevin will do to it. Some of the plotting mechanisms hark back to Lionel Shriver’s 2003 source novel, which if anything made Kevin even more of a bastard.

Still, what Ramsay does with the material — with invaluable help from the prickly-vulnerable Swinton and a peerless portrait in sociopathy by the 18-year-old Ezra Miller as the teenage Kevin — sticks in the mind and the eye. This is a thriller, after a fashion (some have called it a horror movie; Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells memorably termed it “emotional rat poison”), and it made me wonder anew what Ramsay might have done with The Lovely Bones, which she was attached to for a while before Peter Jackson took it over and stank it up with his heavy-breathing CGI visions of heaven. I wonder, too, if the experience of losing out on The Lovely Bones made Ramsay hungry for another story about murder and familial noncommunication and devastated mothers. This is by leaps and bounds the better film, though not nearly as comforting — we even hear Eva, with suspicious cheerfulness, telling Jehovah’s Witnesses that she fully expects to go to hell — and to recommend it to young or prospective parents would be the height of cruelty. The movie, among other things, gives us to think about how much of parenting is the luck of the genetic draw: some babies come out destined to bring pain to themselves and everyone around them, and not the smallest or largest damn thing can be done about it.

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