We Need to Talk About Kevin January 25, 2017
Eva (Tilda Swinton) wasn’t meant to be a mother. Or so she believes. She was meant to be free, to travel the world and live a dauntless life. Be a nomad, be a woman so in touch with her wants and her needs that little else besides her own happiness is capable of overtaking her interests.
But she made the mistake of getting married in her twenties to a likable oaf (John C. Reilly) who originally seemed to solidify the opposites attract sentiment. Maybe she thought she’d be able to prolong her adventurous existence even in married life — their courtship, after all, was thrilling. But once they buy a house in the suburbs and once she gets pregnant, Eva comes to realize that she’s trapped, that she’ll never be able to explore the more untamed components of her identity at least until her child has moved out of the house. She hates it. She hates the way she’s suddenly looked at predominantly as a man’s wife. As someone’s mother. No longer is she an individual possessing a reputation not marred by domesticity.
Perhaps her disdain for acting as part of a modern-day Nuclear Family is selfish — she put herself into the situation and should consider her more weighty responsibilities to be of higher importance than her wishful desires. But in Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), that war with herself is intriguing, not only because we see a woman trying her damnedest to be Donna Reed and consistently failing but also because of the effect her disfavor of suburban life has on her oldest child, Kevin.
From the moment he was conceived, it seems probable that Kevin knew of his mother’s yearning for a different life and made it his mission to emotionally torment her in a wicked attempt to shame her for her hesitations. His birth was long and painful, which we evaluate as a purposeful act by the film’s end. As a baby, all he did was scream, making sure Eva be pushed to her psychological limits and that she understand that the mother/child connection is sour. Throughout his years as a toddler, glaring at her in stony silence was more important than learning to play ball, than learning how to speak. In elementary school, he would soil his pants deliberately, slam his food on the table instead of eat it. In one of the film’s most terrifying scenes, he destroys one of Eva’s treasured art projects just to spite her. In another, she accidentally breaks his arm in frustration. Elsewhere, we’d characterize this as her wrongdoing. But to Kevin, it’s a point on his scoreboard of torment, and to us, it’s a deserved repercussion of his villainy.
When focusing on Kevin’s childhood, the movie is merely unsettling — there’s a feeling of impending eruption. But all turns into flagrant horror when faced with Kevin’s teenage years and his malice has reached its most nightmarish point. His words slice now more than ever. His actions — such as acting normal and friendly to his clueless father (who never takes Eva’s side when she recalls their son’s scary behavior) and manipulating his little sister to the point of fearful servitude — are psychopathic. He’s beyond everyday evil. He seems like something of a Satanic spawn, with no other desire in life besides destroying the lives of everyone that touches him.
His depravity ignites an act of violent tragedy revealed early on. But I won’t disclose it here — the shocking statement, in itself, would sensationalize Kevin as a careless monster. He is not. He is a methodical monster, and later do we come to realize that that said violent act is more meant to turn Eva into a pariah. He couldn’t care less about living behind bars. He just wants his mother to be miserable. When asked why he ultimately does what he does and why Eva wasn’t one of his targets of carnage, he cruelly smiles and sighs that it’d be a mistake to lose his audience.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is profoundly disturbing, with much of its uneasiness stemming from the very real possibility of a mother being incapable of comfortably wearing the domestic guise she’s expected to flaunt without complaint. Eva is unhappy, and her hatred of her life is abundantly clear. Her niceties are a sham. “Mommy was happy before Kevin came along,” she aggressively laments to her preschool aged son after a particularly frustrating afternoon. “Now she wakes up every morning and wishes she were in France.” He probably can’t understand her. But Kevin can sense her discomfort with motherhood. And he’s only going to make it harder.
If handled with an incorrect proportion of compassion, we’d dislike Eva tremendously. She’s certainly not perfect. But in Ramsay’s hands is she a huggable heroine, a heroine who tries as hard as she can to overcome her domestic nausea to benefit her husband and children. Kevin makes that impossible. She never stops trying. Shortly before he commits the dastardly act that will forever make her an eternally alienated outcast in her small town, she even takes him out for the night and still strives, after years of verbal abuse and emotional manipulation, to form some sort of bond. That she does anything at all is a miracle. We Need to Talk About Kevin is heartbreaking not because of the more obvious tragedy that cements the film but because of the way this woman, living a life that she never wanted to live in the first place, is punished just because she incidentally walked into conventional family life and was expected to be Carol Brady. She deserves a medal.
Swinton gives a tour-de-force performance as Eva. Ramsay’s directing style is highly visual and aural — dialogue is limited, our senses making up for the ambiguity left by the absence of words. But Swinton, so sympathetic and so astoundingly expressive, allows for the film to grab us by the lapels even when we’re swimming in a sea of symbolism and abstruseness. At first, Eva is a difficult protagonist: we don’t know what to make of her, unsure of how many her son’s faults are a consequence of her own self-consciousness. If played by a different actress, that analysis might puzzle more. And yet Swinton provides us with necessary clarity. Her struggles in domesticity are perhaps universal, if dramatized. She’s the solidifier of We Need to Talk About Kevin’s unshakability.
It’s a difficult masterpiece, one you won’t find yourself wanting to sit through a second time. But it’s a film of emotional foreboding on the verge, a document of continued professional bravery for Swinton and especially Ramsay, a challenging iconoclast. “She’s the real McCoy,” Swinton later stated when asked about her director. “She is one of those rare filmmakers who creates the kind of films that just would not be there if she didn’t make them.” Maybe we’d be happier if We Need to Talk About Kevin didn’t exist. It’s hard to watch. But it’s also the kind of movie that haunts and provokes, that latches onto you like a leech and refuses to let go, to be forgotten. No one ever talks about Kevin in the film. But we definitely will be in the years to come. A