We Need to Talk About Kevin appears under the guise of an emotional view of what makes a school shooter exist. This assessment couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, reports that the film follows a mother’s journey into the horrors of emotional and societal aftermath only tell part of the story. We Need to Talk About Kevin is firstly about the specifically difficult terrain that is raising a child. Secondly, Kevin is about how the creatures we bring into the world will swallow our thoughts and memories to the point where an evil act can make us literally deranged.
Director Lynne Ramsay, whose earlier films include Ratcatcher and Morvern Caller, has no intention of providing easy answers or prayers of support. The narrative is presented entirely subjectively as Kevin’s mom, Eva, (played with shocking perfection by Tilda Swinton) barely stays above water under the pressure of memory and present day hatred. Everywhere she goes, Eva is haunted by the past. These moments, sometimes as seemingly trite as meeting a former student in a wheelchair to as violent as a slap in the face from a perfect stranger, could be entirely figments of Eva’s unreliable imagination.
Stylistically the film shares much in common with The Tree of Life. The structure is comprised almost entirely of memories, but these aren’t your standard Hollywood flashbacks so much as portals into the bowels of Eva’s mind. The memories are as concrete as a conversation played in real-time or as fleeting as blurred past glory running through the streets of New York City. Kevin’s character is built from the very moment of his birth to be a difficult child who seems to have been put on Earth primarily to make his mother’s life a living pit of lava. He screams, cries, exhibits borderline autistic and refuses to cooperate with even the nice gestures put forth by Eva.
By his early teens Kevin is a classic sociopath, containing only rage and contempt for those around him. Like so many children in America, Kevin’s behavior is dealt with without proper treatment, punishment, or even attention. If Eva can get through the day without Kevin doing terrible harm then the day has been a success. This environment, of course, is only conducive to the worst kind of results imaginable. And that’s what occurs. While these seem pretty concrete in a storytelling sense, their presentation comes in clips, unmeasured and with increasing anxiousness that reflects Eva’s sinking state of mind. Also, Kevin’s acts are blatant, two-dimensional, almost heavy-handed. This isn’t an example of lacking writing but of Eva’s hindsight being 20/20. She no longer has the capability of seeing the good in her son. He was the torturous curse placed on her life, he ruined everything she once had and once was. Kevin, for Eva, is pure evil and that’s all the film ever allows him to be.
The real revelation in We Need to Talk About Kevin is the levity that’s compacted into its heavy subject matter. Many films that venture into this territory can collapse under the weight of their own intensity. Yet, Ramsay has a wink and a grin about the subject. This isn’t to say the topic of school shooting is handled lightly but similar to a giddy horror film (a genre this film owes most its debt) the storytelling can’t help but chide the viewer, begging them not to see the humor inherent in human meltdown. This aspect will inevitably frustrate people. At the screening I attended, Swinton spoke afterwards, “I honor and admire that frustration.” Will American audiences feel the same? I suspect not. However, with such a complexly handled piece one can only endure it on a personal level. I didn’t leave We Need to Talk About Kevin hoping it would get critical praise. Like a great piece of work, I just wanted to hold it in my brain and keep it all to myself. These complicated quilt films have the power to enrapture the mind.
Swinton and Reilly are superb as usually. It’s nice to see Reilly again taking dramatic risks, bringing his unique caring nature to dark material. Reilly plays, as always, somewhat of a pushover. While Swinton suffers most of the wrath of her son it’s mostly because she has a preternatural sense of his evil. Reilly is the ignorant father, who works most the day away, only seeing glimpses of his son’s behavior, never realizing the evil control such a kid possesses. The results are suitably devastating for each party. Without giving away the ending, Eva remains trapped by her motherly guilt, still living in the town of the horror and still visiting her devil of an offspring every Thursday. Even within the most awful circumstances, a mother cannot abandon her child. She hates him, categorically she despises this thing she has made. Eva’s feelings are not left to the imagination. But she won’t walk away from him.
We Need to Talk About Kevin defies narrative standards by handling an intense subject with surprising levity and horror. The story manages to portray a character at the back-end of a downward spiral while spinning images that act much like her mind. The camera reflects the thoughts running through Eva’s brain. We both see Eva’s struggle and watch the world burn from her own eyes. The film doesn’t leave you with much hope beyond the idea that life continues to go on for some and that most, at least, are not as evil as Kevin. For those caught in the orbit of this sickness, the results can be devastating, too devastating even for a mother’s love to cure.