We Need to Talk About Kevin is a tricky movie to review. It’s fucking good to get that out of the way. But… I watched it like a week ago and had a serious backlog of reviews to do before embarking on 2011’s Worst 10 and Top 15 films. I did it chronologically but I was done a few days ago with my review of The Muppets and now here we sit with this as the last 2011 film I saw in 2011 and a presence that is unequivocally upsetting to the temporary version of that Top 15 list I’m always so keen on.
The other reason this is a tricky one is actually a real reason that has to do with the movie itself. You knew there was one of those coming, right? Yeah you did! Anyways, it’s because We Need to Talk About Kevin is the kind of experience that puts your stomach into knots and leaves you stripped of preconceived notions about good, evil, nature, nurture, and the project of parenthood. You’re forced to examine all of that while also spellbound by a masterful use of chronology and split narrative (as with Martha Marcy May Marlene) to tell what is in every sense of the word, except the strictest understanding of genre convention, a horror story. It’s also tricky, I guess, because it’s hard not to go into a lot of detail about the plot in terms of analyzing the film and talking about what exactly it’s trying to say. That stuff is obviously what I’m most interested in thinking and writing about so be warned that this review should probably not be read unless you’ve seen the movie or don’t care about spoilers.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is about Kevin (Ezra Miller) obviously, but more about his mother Eva (Tilda Swinton). The narrative is firmly rooted on her, as is the sinister and always-escalating psychological warfare that seems to be underway via Kevin, her own son. The story is split into two narrative threads and the full scope of neither becomes entirely clear until the end of the film. The main sense at first is one of disorientation as the film dovetails between scenes of Kevin’s birth and early childhood supplemented by Eva on her own, sometime later and a ghost of the woman she appears to be when Kevin is young. While it’s possible to misread these early Eva-only scenes as taking place in the past, the tone of her limited interactions with people as well as that she literally looks 20 years older solidifies that this is some point in the future, after something terrible has occurred.
Before too long, the rhythm of the film is clear and you get that at least half of it is about a mother’s struggles with her son, a son who seems to be a textbook sociopath who only drops his calculated demeanor of normalcy when it’s just the two of them. John C. Reilly takes a light-ish support role as Franklin, Kevin’s father who is either unwilling or unable to see Kevin as Eva does (or is allowed to). This causes a lot of understandable tension between the couple and, as you might imagine, this only gets worse as Kevin gets older and his behavior becomes more and more sinister and beguiling. The family is rounded out by the adorable Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich) who is pretty much a normal little girl. I’ll come back to her because her presence in the film isn’t just to provide another victim for Kevin.
Over the course of the film, we learn a lot about who Kevin is underneath his pretenses. This is deftly done because we actually don’t see Kevin “faking it” much since the narrative is so very attached to Eva. She always knows that there’s something fucked up about him, something potentially dangerous, but also something about which she has little power to do anything. Eva’s responsibilities to and for Kevin are the crux of the film’s central dilemma: what role does she have in who he turns out to be?
To cut right into the center of it, Kevin eventually goes on a killing spree that is carefully planned and claims the lives of not only a pile of schoolmates but also Franklin and Celia. This leaves only Eva alive while he goes to prison and makes familiar noises that recall the narcissism and power fantasies typical in “serial killer” or “psychopath” stories. We Need to Talk About Kevin wisely stays away from dwelling on that. I’m not sure who to credit for that given that the film is an adaptation of a novel, but I suppose Lynne Ramsay ultimately decided on what to include or not include in the film so credit should go to her. The reason I say this is wise is because we’ve seen that sort of thing before and the story, frankly, is not about whether Kevin sees himself as the next Jack the Ripper or Dexter Morgan or whatever. The story is about Eva’s culpability both outwardly in terms of what she did and didn’t do in response to the child she was raising as well as inwardly in terms of her own sense of responsibility and guilt for what he’s done and her (perhaps) imagined role in it.
Now we get to what I think about Eva. The scenes in the future, after the massacre, show us a haunted woman and suggest that all the stuff we see about Kevin growing up are her tortured, well-trodden memories. She is in the process, probably extended over years, of reexamining her experiences with him, what she thinks of as the key moments in their shared experience and thus that is what the audience experiences as the subordinate narrative. While there are hints that she isn’t the best mother in the world, there’s also that Kevin is a disagreeable child right from day one and those times she loses patience are completely understandable. While some people will watch this movie and think we’re supposed to wonder just how much Eva had to do with who Kevin becomes, I think we’re really supposed to simply see that Eva is the one who thinks she had something to do with it.
I mean, why else stick around in the same town where it all went down? Why face the parents of the kids her son killed, which she does with a few different outcomes, and the general scorn and hatred of pretty well everyone? I’m sure guilt has a lot to do with it and this is certainly the theme running through the first half or more of the film. But there’s more.
Given that Eva still visits Kevin in prison where he does his best to fuck with her more and that she still keeps a bed for him, maybe it’s because she won’t give up on him. One of the things it’s easy to forget in the course of the film, mostly because Ezra Miller steals every scene he’s in, is that Eva is always trying to make some kind of connection with him. She doesn’t trust him, is afraid of him, but she’s also numb to some of that and underneath it all is that stubborn and probably totally inexorable parental instinct to connect. Which perhaps is why she is the focus of Kevin’s sick psychotic bullshit.
That Eva is just a normal woman put into extraordinary circumstances by a disease of the mind she could do nothing to prevent (and only failed to treat for understandable, if retrospectively reprehensible reasons) is solidified, I think, by Celia. Celia’s a normal kid, she is not unresponsive to love nor does she fail to reciprocate it. There’s a sincerity that Ramsay managed to summon out of the ridiculously young actress which complete counters everything about Kevin. This suggests that Eva is really not at fault. That said, the argument can probably be made that however Celia was raised was sufficiently different from Kevin that she wouldn’t develop in the same way. I think this is necessary speculation given that we, as a society, generally don’t consider the battery of mental illnesses that make up what is understood to be the nature of a sociopath or psychopath to be the fault of nurture. I suppose it’s a poorly understood condition or spectrum of conditions and I don’t really think that the film is trying to venture an agenda about what causes the disorder.
So rather than being some kind of condemnation of parenting gone wrong, We Need to Talk About Kevin instead becomes a horror story about the dual prisons of love and guilt. Eva’s behavior becomes clearly that of a mother who loves her son, on whatever level, and so we can look back on her passive-aggressive response to her increasing awareness of the danger he poses before all hell breaks loose as a result of emotional compromises derived from love. While he is a slick little fucker and nothing he does can ever really be laid at his feet until the moment he reveals himself to his entire community as a cold-blooded murderer, Eva’s response his entire life is to complain to Franklin, be openly suspicious of him, but never really do anything about it. This, I think, is about love of the kind that might truly be 99% parental obligation.
By the point she’s at in the scenes that take place post-massacre, she is obviously guilt-ridden. This guilt is easy to understand given that she isn’t a stupid woman and must wonder what she could have done to stop him, whether her parenting effectively made him, etc etc. That keeps her shiftless and lost in her life, but it also seems like she’s building toward something. She finds a job, goes to work, visits Kevin, has encounters with other victims that start seeming more positive. This is subdued so it’s not clear whether we’re supposed to feel like Eva is coming out the other side of the tragedy she has endured. The scene at the end where she confronts Kevin one last time before he is hauled off to a more serious prison seems to suggest that while she may be ridding herself of the prison of guilt, she is still bound up in the prison of love. It’s a fucking powerful scene too, maybe the most powerful in the whole film. For once, Kevin lets down his guard. He looks as lost and scared as we have seen Eva look many times. He is scarred and battered from the 2 years he’s spent in jail for his crimes and when his mother hugs him goodbye after he fails to answer the ultimate question, why?, he returns the embrace.
And you’re sort of left wondering just what the fuck. Some people are going to puff themselves up with a false sense of moral superiority over Eva’s commitment to Kevin. I think what makes the narrative so insidiously tragic and painful for the discerning viewer is that her motivations are utterly understandable even as his are utterly alien (except maybe in that final moment). So when we leave Eva and Kevin it’s only fitting that all the build-up of bleakness between them finally gives way to something very complex, strange (to us) and ultimately challenging to our normal understanding of catharsis and redemption. There’s no doubt in my mind that some small catharsis takes place in that embrace but can I accept it much less understand it?
I don’t think I can, truthfully, but at least someone is asking.