[21 December 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Sure, every mother worries that their child will grow up confused and maladjusted. They fear that life will take the tender and naive and make them strident and hard. Few, however, imagine their offspring as the spawn of the Devil himself, or even worse, inherently and irretrievably evil, and yet that’s exactly where Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) finds herself at the beginning of the eclectic pseudo-horror film We Need to Talk About Kevin. The boy in question is her sadistic son, an adolescent whose just committed an appalling act of public violence. As she tries to figure out just where she went wrong, Eva comes to a startling conclusion - perhaps, she wasn’t a bad parent. Perhaps, Kevin was meant to be a killer all along.
The story starts at the end. Kevin (Ezra Miller) has locked up his fellow students in his local high school and exacted a kind of meaningless revenge on them. Eva, now alone, tries to rebuild her life. Once, she was a successful travel agent with a talented husband (John C. Reilly) on her arm. Then she got pregnant, and her life seemed to change almost instantaneously. Within a few years, she was a house-bound wife with a spoiled rotten child who seems to purposely be pushing her buttons. Even as an infant, Kevin never stops crying, never wants to be potty trained, and constantly challenges his mother’s authority. While doting on his dad, he is a demon to everyone else. When she questions his motives, everyone questions hers. Now, she is left with a series of wounds and a legacy of horror that she can’t quite handle.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is, perhaps, the most obvious anti-child rant ever realized by a mostly mainstream motion picture. While the symbolism employed by director Lynne Ramsay is a tad too obvious (does everything have to be blood red???) and the storyline a bit too scattered in structure, the overall result is devastating in its declaration. This is a story where the evil is obvious. It’s right there in front of us, smack dab in the middle of every scene. Unlike the typical psycho set-up, where Mommy and Daddy drive Junior to insane acts, Kevin makes it clear that Eva has given birth to the ultimate bad seed.
Indeed, Rhoda Penmark would be jealous of how quickly this toddler becomes a terror. There is a scene, early on, when we see how things are going to be. Eva, pushing a stroller through the noisy streets of Manhattan, can’t seem to drown out her baby’s crying. Finding refuge near a construction site, the jackhammers mask the mania…until the child ups the sonic ante.
Kevin is genuinely creepy. Without provocation, he destroys his mother’s personal belongings. He is later implicated in the near poisoning and blinding of his baby sister. When a pet goes missing, all eyes turn to the kid with the misplaced smirk on his face…and the garbage disposal. When suspicions are raised, a computer disc filled with viruses destroy everything Eva and her business are built on. All throughout We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ramsay walks a very fine and very delicate line. We are supposed to “believe” that this boy is that bad. However, there is also a tiny thread that argues that Eva could be exaggerating, her memories making up for the massive amount of guilt she feels for the sins of her family.
In Swinton, we discover yet another fragile flower about to go atomic. With her high cheek-boned grace and androgynous allure, she’s an enigma masquerading as an everyday suburbanite. When we watch Eva interview for a lowly job in an office, her gratitude at not being judged is so striking it sends shivers down your spine. Similarly, when confronted by angry citizens around town, her sheepish reaction reveals even more layers of underrepresented angst. It’s a powerhouse performance, eons better than the turn in Michael Clayton that earned her an Oscar. But more importantly, Swinton has to convince us of what she thinks Kevin is. Without her work here, the movie would be a mindless exercise in birth exploitation.
The rest of the cast is also illustrative. Reilly, while not really in the movie very much, comes across as the kind of disconnected participant who is destined to meet a tragic (or telling) end. His dofus charms add a lot here. Similarly, ancillary actors like Siobhan Fallon and Alex Manette manage to turn broad comic caricatures into something resembling humanity. At the center of it all lies Miller as the bane of every adult’s existence. Manipulative, dangerous, and delighted in the reaction to both, there is an intensity to his work that really sets us on edge. Just as we think we have Kevin figured out, the film throws us another psychological curve ball, and all brat bets are off.
Perhaps the best element about We Need to Talk About Kevin is the lack of a simple straight answer. In the book upon which the film is based, there are allusions to sexual molestation (by a teacher) and a strange pact with a conspiring best friend. Here, we get no real ‘why.’ Is it the birth of a sister that pushes Kevin over the edge? The possible divorce of his parents? The lack of love from his otherwise caring mother, or the time her frustration resulted in a “fall down the stairs?” When asked, the boy delivers the kind of sickening indictment that makes all the badness in the world seem even worse. As a family drama, We Need to Talk About Kevin is too insular and piecemeal to be potent. It just doesn’t have that ascending advantage. It also lacks the insight to be a stern social commentary. As fright, however, as a glimpse into the secret apprehension in every parent’s life, it’s stellar. It explores said situation with the kind of hopelessness reserved for real monsters - monsters like Kevin.