It seems like it’s happening more and more these days, but maybe it’s just that we’re more connected now than we have ever been before. Is it two or three times a year that we hear about a young person going into a school or a public place and then going ballistic, killing as many people as possible in a short period of time? I think the last time this happened was this summer when The Dark Knight Rises opened, and a guy dressed like the Joker went into a midnight showing of the movie and started firing. Immediately, everybody knew, and the victims’ last tweets were made public within a day.
The movie We Need to Talk About Kevin looks at the events leading up to and after such a horrific event through the eyes of a parent, in this case the point of view of Kevin’s mother, who has known that there was something wrong with her son since birth. Eva Khatchadourian has been ostracized by everybody in the town that she lives in ever since her son went on a rampage at his high school. She struggles with an act of vandalism that happens at the beginning of the movie, and the red paint that she removes throughout the movie, as well as the general refurbishing of her house, works as a symbol at various times in the movie. There are also scenes comparing Eva’s life before and after the event. She once lived in a sparkling-clean, posh house with lots of windows and worked as a travel writer. Now she lives in a dark, rundown house with leftover plates of scrambled eggs lying around and works at a travel office where one of her main duties is photocopying. She’s gone from being a confident, put-together woman to one who’s fraying at the edges.
Eva is a flawed person and what her son did was incredibly awful, but it’s hard to believe all of the abuse that she is subjected to in the course of the movie. My biggest question is why did Eva stay in that town where everybody knew what happened? Maybe she wanted to stay close to her son who’s locked up nearby (she’s shown visiting him periodically during the movie where most of the sessions are silent and she sits with a blank face). Maybe she just feels like she has to punish herself for being the person who gave birth to such a monster.
Throughout his childhood, her son Kevin shows the classic signs of a sociopathic personality: he screams constantly as an infant, is incredibly late to toilet train, shows no empathy, and abuses those who are smaller and helpless under him. (A lot of his behavior reminded me of how Nancy Spungen’s mother describes her early childhood in And I Don’t Want to Live This Life.) Kevin is also a master manipulator from a very young age and plays his parents off each other perfectly. Daddy (John C. Reilly) is the good guy and only sees the happy faces that his son puts on in order to get what he wants. It’s Eva who sees what really lies beneath, but even she can be played by Kevin. When he’s sick and Eva takes care of him, Kevin is entranced by a book that she reads to him, and it is the one moment in the movie where Eva nurtures her son and he allows her to do it, even extending the moment with his mother by locking his dad out. Later, it turns out that this story time only served to provide Kevin with his weapon of choice.
Both the actors (Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller) who play Kevin as a young boy and teenager are wonderful. If you thought Damien was evil in The Omen, wait until you get a load of Kevin. Tilda Swinton is equally able as his mother Eva, showing love and hate for her son before the tragedy, but after, her face seems to be a blank slate as she drifts on autopilot trying to put the pieces of her life back together. The only time that she seems to react is when she encounters victims of her son and then her primary emotional response is shame. And I think this is how a woman in her situation would act.
There are visual and sound motifs used in the movie that some might find a little heavy-handed, but I really liked them. I thought they gave the movie more texture and made it meaty. Actually this whole movie could be taken apart as a piece of literature. There’s comparison and contrast, symbols, motifs. But I doubt a high school teacher would be able to get this movie on a syllabus with its dark and twisted themes. A pity since it would provoke so much discussion.