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We Need to Talk About Kevin

Some Mother’s Son: We Need to Talk About Kevin

So many times now we’ve had to endure another tragic news story Рsome disgruntled teen has shot the whole school down and then killed himself.  Sympathy goes to the victims and their parents, as well it should. Hatred and blame have to go somewhere, especially when the shooter has taken his own life.  The first thought on everyone’s mind is always “what kind of a mother could raise such a monster?”

Such is the paradigm in Lynne Ramsay’s unsettling, unforgettable new film after a ten year hiatus, We Need to Talk About Kevin.  Ramsay wisely comes at the film not wanting to give any answers, but to ask one question, specifically: whose fault is it? We’re not really comfortable with the idea that a sociopath could just be born that way.  We’d much rather have someone to blame, and that someone is, without fail, the mother.

It‚Äôs unusual to see a film not back down from this uncomfortable dynamic — there is always a need to place blame somewhere because only then can you have a pathway out of the nightmare to a world that makes better sense. ¬†But Lynne Ramsay and co-writer Rory Kinnear go there. ¬†They tell this story without a specific conclusion. ¬†We are always looking for clues to make the whole thing make sense.

Played with hollowed-out magnificence by Tilda Swinton, this mother is tortured by her own guilt throughout the film Рfirst, for not really feeling connected with her child at any point, not knowing how to reach him and never forming a positive bond with him.  He is too smart, knows her too well, and mostly knows how to hurt and disturb her every day of his life.  They do form a bond eventually, but it is an unhealthy one.

Unfortunately, all eyes turn on the mother when something goes wrong and yet, in the thick of it, if a mother dares to speak ill of her child she is likewise judged for being a bad, uncaring, cold mother too.  Here, that societal eye is embodied in the husband, played by John C. Reilly.  His own denial and general absence forces him to see his wife as a woman who can’t accept her own child.  Ramsay floods the movie with juxtapositions of “normal” children and their serene mothers.

In one vivid sequence, chipper, uncomplicated ballerinas leap and skip by her while she’s shell-shocked by the creature growing inside her.  She’s also the odd man out in the locker room for what appears to be mommy yoga.  Soon, this manifests itself in the boy acting out, not learning to use the toilet, not speaking.   But what is to be done with this child?  How does this mother stop blaming herself and take control of the situation before it is too late?

If Swinton’s character is guilty of anything it’s not trusting her own instincts about her kid Рin not finding someone, anyone who will listen and try to somehow control the boy.  And, as we all know, from reports of school mass murderers, sometimes even intervention can’t prevent something like this happening.  To prevent it is to imagine it at all.  Swinton’s character knows there is something wrong with Kevin.  But she’s at a loss as to what to do because, in the end, if there’s something wrong with him, there must also be something wrong with her.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is most dramatically marked by its director’s expressive visual style, and by the performances of Swinton and newcomer 18 year-old Ezra Miller, who plays the blank-eyed simmering pot, Kevin.   Miller is someone you can’t take your eyes off of and never quite get enough of.  Puffy, rose-colored lips, creamy white skin, hypnotic eyes Рhow could such a beautiful child perpetrate such evil? The filmmakers managed to find kids who look just like Miller to play him at various ages and it’s remarkable.

Reaching this understanding of character is what Swinton brings so beautifully to this film, and everything she does, really.  But here, she must play the mother at various stages of this story playing out. She is the young bride-to-be. She is the young mother.  And eventually, she is the shattered, barely surviving mother of a mass murderer who has lost everything.  Swinton’s face is a canvas in and of itself Рnot just because it’s wide and flat, white like a movie screen, but because she controls her expressions so well Рnever giving away too much but driving the plot with one facial tick.

With so much going on at once, tough emotional terrain to cover, Ramsay never drops the ball.  She tells her story as well with or without dialogue.  The film just gets better as the story unfolds.  There is careful attention paid to choices of color, combinations of objects and people in the frame Рso deliberate, so sure-handed.

We Need to Talk About Kevin doesn’t offer up a neat, tidy ending, and it will never give you the catharsis you need after such an experience; there are horrors in this life that do not deserve a happy ending.  But for parents, mothers in particular, who’ve spent many a silent night lying in bed worrying about our mothering, regretting having crossed a line, hoping everything turns out okay in the end, we cannot help but sympathize with Swinton.  Some will say that the film is in the wrong: we shouldn’t sympathize with her. We should hope she rots in hell.  Sadly, her character would agree.