WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011)
Directed by Lynn Ramsay
Written by Lynn Ramsay and Rory Kinnear (based on the book by Lionel Shriver)
In the opening moments of We Need to Talk About Kevin, we witness Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) being carried in a Christ-like pose through the streets of a Valencian La Tomatina Celebration. It's a flashback to a tumultuous, exciting time in her youth. As tomatoes are thrown about, bodies of the celebrants thrash around splattering each other with the gore-like tomato debris. The tomato-soaked crowd appears as though covered in blood, and it's not made clear as to whether they are having fun or panicking. Eva is covered in tomato muck and finally rests nearly drowned in a great red tide of pulp and juice. Though she appears blissful, she is the sacrificial lamb for the events about to unfold. This opening makes a bold statement as to her role as a woman and a mother. This type of heavy symbolism would recur throughout Lynn Ramsay's film adaptation of the Lionel Shriver book.
Ramsay's vision of the story is told in non-linear fashion, evident by the next shot of flashing police and ambulance lights, the troubled face of an "older" Eva amongst a hysterical crowd gathered outside of a much different event. We know something terribly tragic has happened involving Eva's son and his high school classmates. Before we find out exactly what's transpired, we retrace the steps of Eva's life before and after the birth of her son, Kevin. The film works itself out within a disjointed timeline, outlining possibilities, while the viewer looks for cause and effect. Ramsay effectively pieces things together with jarring juxtapositions of Eva's hopeful life before Kevin's birth, the frustrating struggles raising him, and the depressing aftermath in the wake of the tragic event.
Eva and Franklin (John C. Reilly) have a loving relationship, and relatively happy life together. Much of their early relationship is spent carefree, travelling to exotic places, and dreaming of future success. Shortly after their marriage, Eva gives birth to Kevin. Seemingly healthy, she can't understand why the baby never stops crying. Already off on a bad foot, the strain in the relationship of mother to son is evident right away as she can provide no comfort to the child. His incessant blaring is a cause of great stress to the point that she'd (literally) seek refuge from his cries in standing beside a pounding jackhammer. Franklin, coming home to a calm, sleeping baby, can't grasp why Eva is so stressed. To him - and possibly even to Eva - her reaction might be attributed to the newborn putting a damper on her previously adventurous life. It's this early resentment that acts as a catalyst to the rest of the film. What exactly is Eva doing wrong? Is her perceived resentment the root of the terrible future tragedy?
Against Eva's wishes, Franklin moves the three out to a well-to-do suburban neighborhood where they can provide themselves and Kevin with all the best accruements. It could be a fresh start in a perfect world. The only problem is Kevin. Each stage of Kevin's development brings a new nightmare. Still in diapers by age four, Kevin is defiant in every possible way. There's a mean streak in him that goes beyond being merely a "difficult" or "rebellious" child. His eyes betray a disturbing disdain for his mother. By the time he's an adolescent, he appears downright dangerous. As a teen, Kevin picks up questionable hobbies like archery and collecting (creating?) computer viruses. He clearly displays sociopathic tendencies, and obviously harbors nothing but malice in his every action. He takes great pleasure in making Eva suffer while interacting in a cool casualness with everyone else. He's making her look like the bad one, the guilty one. Eva occasionally stands up for herself, but always comes up looking unreasonable and selfish in the eyes of her husband.
After the tragic event, Eva finds herself alone, jobless, utterly depressed, and living in a dilapidated home. She is trying to put her life back together, but extreme grief, guilt, addiction, and the pervasive hatred of the grief-stricken townspeople prevent her from rebuilding in any healthy way. Her life has been utterly destroyed. Since fingers point to the parents first for the wrongdoings of children, Eva takes the lion's share of the blame. Kevin's sins rest firmly on her shoulders. However, no slap in the face, rude stare, or cruel prank from the grieving town are as harsh as the punishment Eva inflicts on herself. Walking around nearly catatonic, her memory is a way of poking around for causes, continually chastising herself as she replays her own life.
While We Need to Talk About Kevin can be a bit heavy-handed and overwrought with symbolism, it's still a powerful look at parenting, guilt, sacrifice, gender roles, and the suffocating blame placed on mothers when things go wrong. Kevin comes from a home where he has all the comforts afforded by his family. He's not some ignored child of privilege. He receives plenty of attention from both his mother and father. There is no evidence of him having been bullied by classmates. He has every opportunity to live an enriched, fullfilling life. Yet, his worldview is bleak, his manner cold and distant, and his view of humanity is anything but shiny. He's an enigma through and through.
Swinton is magnificent, her subtle portrayal of Eva working brilliantly with the somber tone and risky themes. Is she justified in her anger and frustration, or simply not "mom" material? Her emotions often border on outright hatred of Kevin, but also showing great patience and love in the face of his disturbing personality. Their relationship is more cat-and-mouse than anything remotely resembling nurturing love, but Eva admirably keeps trying. Reilly plays well against her as Franklin, a father who wants to be his kid's best friend more than exercise his role as parent. He turns a blind eye toward Kevin's frightening idiosyncracies, quick to use Eva's insecurities as a scapegoat. Their relationship is slowly coming apart at the seams, and clearly on a path to destruction.
The performance of the younger children (Jasper Newell, Rock Duer) are solid. They play Kevin with such menace, the viewer has no choice but to side with Eva. In these early stages of Kevin's life, it's a little tough to gain his sympathy even when he's sick or nursing a broken arm. Unfortunately, Ezra Miller plays his antagonistic teen Kevin a little too over-the-top. He's almost a charicature of the "evil kid" in movies like The Bad Seed or The Omen, moreso than the younger actors. I'd have preferred a more subtle, nuanced take that alluded to his sociopathic tendencies rather than have his spitefulness so in-your-face. Because of it, the film occasionally flirts with playing as an updated Rosemary's Baby. Kevin could be the devil's child all grown up, this film following Satan's spawn in the subsequent years (wait, wasn't that already a movie?). In fact, there is a funny homage to Polanski's film, and a surprising smattering of clever, dark humor to boot. I'm not 100% sure Ramsay's motivations here, but I think it's partially to downplay what's really being said: "Hey, look, sometimes kids really are evil assholes, and it's normal to feel hatred towards them".
My comparisons to The Omen and Rosemary's Baby are, of course, an overstatement. The film is certainly rooted in realism. Kevin is not the anti-christ, nor is he possessed by demons. There is nothing supernatural about the story at all. However, for me, that realism was threatened a number of times by the older Kevin's overly brooding looks and melodramatic diatribes. If Miller had reeled it in, the already nifty film would be that much better.
I have yet to read Shriver's book, but I'm really eager to make a comparison between it and Ramsay's interpretation. From my perspective, Ramsey and her production team succeed mightily in creating an effective and affecting film. The film looks great, and special attention should be paid to the brilliant editing. Ramsay is also careful not to dip her toes into the more sensationalistic aspects. We never see what Kevin did to his classmates, nor does the film dwell on many of the other violent aspects. Her focus is directly on the conflicted emotions and confusion of her characters, never to be distracted by excess.
Filmgoers looking for typical explanations or pat endings will find Ramsay's film frustrating. It's easy to pin tragic behavior on any number of easily digested factors. The scary thing is that no matter how deep the probing, the verdict might simply be that some kids are just born straight up evil.
We Need to Talk About Kevin Trailer