Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
Written by: Lynne Ramsay and Rory Kinnear, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver
When I was in high school, way back in the dark ages when Ronald Reagan was serving his first term in office, I read Rage by Stephen King. It’s a dark, wonderful novella about a young teen acting out his violent urges in the classroom. I thought it was a clever, unique idea. Eerily believable, but safely outside the bounds of reality. Imagine … a student actually bringing a gun to school.
Much later, when I’d become the mother of two young kids — one of whom was in school — we all heard the news of the killings in Columbine, and our world changed. It was the first of many such incidents which left our country scrambling for answers. How does a child become a seemingly remorseless killer? The media has rounded up the usual suspects, everything from bad parenting to an overabundance of violent video games and heavy metal music. In our eagerness to wrap our minds around something that baffles and terrifies us, we clutch at every possible explanation.
Unsurprisingly, grappling with the tragedy of school shootings has become part of the zeitgeist of our time, reflected in various novels and movies, including Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, adapted from the novel of the same title by Lionel Shriver.
This film tells its story from the perspective of Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), mother of Kevin, a high school student who, at age 15, took the lives of some of his classmates. Treated as a pariah by the community and in greatly reduced financial circumstances, Eva accepts a job with a small travel agency. As she goes through her quotidian routines, she is treated with rage or contempt everywhere she goes. Even a simple trip to the grocery store becomes a humiliating ordeal.
The story we see on screen is almost a stream of consciousness, shifting back and forth in time. We see her in the present, going through the motions of living and enduring silent visits with Kevin in the juvenile detention facility. We catch glimpses of happier times, before she and her husband had children; snippets of the incident at the high school, which crushed so many lives; and a jumble of memories of her life with Kevin, from conception through adolescence. Although Eva says little about what is going through her mind, I sense that she’s reliving the past, remembering Kevin as a disturbed boy, and wondering whether she, in some way, is to blame.
Eva appears to have been ambivalent about pregnancy and new motherhood. Kevin’s infancy was difficult — he seems to have had colic and cried constantly. We get the impression that, because of all this, Eva had a great deal of difficulty bonding with her son. Are we meant to believe this contributed to Kevin’s blossoming psychopathy?
As a small child, Kevin develops atypically, showing what might be interpreted as signs of autism — he doesn’t talk, doesn’t respond to attempts to engage him in play, has low muscle tone, and is very late potty training. Of course, people on the autism spectrum don’t tend to be psychopathic. And even from a tender age, we see something dark and unnerving in Kevin. Eva sometimes responds badly to his behavior, locking them both in a vicious cycle.
Eva’s husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), who plays a disappointingly small role in this film, seems to bond easily with Kevin. We see Kevin deliberately cultivate that while treating his mother with contempt, artfully playing his parents against each other. And as Kevin grows from a scary kid to a dangerous teenager, Franklin remains solidly in denial. (Which doesn’t explain, to my satisfaction, why Eva didn’t insist on getting the child professional help. Is there a part of her that’s in denial too? Is she hobbled by her own guilt? But I digress.)
It’s easy to see why this movie received so much critical acclaim. Tilda Swinton is magnificent. Her portrayal of Eva — a woman whose world has constricted tightly around her, leaving her with little but grief and regret — is harrowing. While I didn’t find her a particularly likeable character, she earned my empathy and respect. Ezra Miller’s performance, as the adolescent Kevin, is chilling.
I found the abrupt shifts in time a bit confusing but incredibly effective. I felt like I was seeing the world through Eva’s mind, constantly churning with memories, regrets, and disturbing flashbacks. This was enhanced by skillful cinematography and glimpses of stillness and silence at just the right moments.
The movie left me with plenty of questions. For example, the story is told from Eva’s point of view; to what degree are her memories skewed? When Kevin is a small child, we see a deliberate maliciousness in his refusal to respond to her efforts to help him develop normally. Is this real? Or is it a product of her imagination, addled by weariness and frustration? Does Kevin actually coldly play his parents against each other as we see him doing on screen? Or do Eva’s difficult emotions, as she looks back on his early childhood, skew her memories? Is Franklin really as frustratingly oblivious to Kevin’s problems as she remembers? Is her perception that nearly everyone treats her with hostility accurate? Or is she, in some sense, an unreliable narrator?
This movie is incredibly disturbing, especially to a viewer who happens to be a mom. It’s also thought-provoking. It’s likely to leave viewers wrestling with questions about what triggers psychopathy in children. What causes evil to grow where we expect to see only innocence? What role, if any, do the parents play in this? Do we scapegoat the parents of seriously disturbed youngsters? None of us is a perfect parent (believe me), but people find it surprisingly easy to cast the first stone. Maybe that makes people feel safe. If the parents of seriously disturbed youngsters are horrible people, then what’s happening to them won’t touch us. We’re good people. Our children will turn out O.K.
If only life were so simple.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is an impressive film. A very visual style of storytelling, which lets us into Eva’s world while wisely not revealing too much, outstanding acting and direction, and artful cinematography — along with difficult and timely themes — make this movie incredibly memorable.
Do I recommend it? Absolutely. Will I ever watch it again? I doubt it. This did convince me to read the novel though, hoping for more insight into these characters. Because that’s just the kind of masochist I am.