Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Cult Movie Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

On first blush, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) is a riveting psychological thriller. However, if you happen to be a parent, you will recognize it as something else: a horror movie.  

The film, directed by Lynne Ramsey, expertly plumbs insecurities not so much about children, but about the role that parents play upon their child’s development and mental health. 

What does it say about you if you bring a monster rather than a man into the world?

And if you do create and shelter a monster, what is your responsibility to that monster, and to society at large?

These are just two of the difficult questions We Need to Talk About Kevin raises. 

What remains so remarkable about the film is how it refuses to provide easy answers about what, precisely, ails Kevin, the child in question.  The movie’s summary description on Amazon.com’s streaming queue describes Kevin in terms like “evil” and “malevolent,” but the truth is much cloudier than that. 

This isn’t a movie about simple labels.

From a certain perspective, Kevin appears to be a sociopath, or at least mentally ill.  He seems to lack a functioning conscience most of the time. The movie provides several Kubrickian shots (like those featured in The Shining [1980] and Full Metal Jacket [1987]) of Kevin glaring up, head titled down, over his furrowed brow.  There’s something primitive, focused, and obsessive in that pose.  It’s the visage of a Neanderthal predator, not the evolved human being we would hope and expect to recognize in our own child.

From another perspective, however, We Need to Talk About Kevin is actually about a kid who wants only to be loved by his emotionally unavailable mother, and who keeps violating family and societal boundaries to pinpoint some – any -- evidence of that love, until finally he goes so far that bloody tragedy ensues.

One image repeated twice in the film – that of the mother literally transforming into the child and then back to mother again while washing her face in a sink -- suggests that she is partially the cause for Kevin’s anti-social behavior.

Or perhaps that’s how she views the situation in the aftermath of Kevin’s bloody action. Her deep shame has led her to question herself and her actions in a deep and relentless way.  She can’t escape the trap of her own memories, and the opportunities she missed.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is unfailingly gorgeous from a visual standpoint, and commendably ambiguous from a thematic standpoint.  It’s a film that eschews easy answers and thus resonates in the memory.   The film’s powerful symbolism -- largely involving the color red -- is brilliantly and consistently applied, and makes us understand the specific shading of Kevin and Eva’s American tragedy.

“Just because you're used to something doesn't mean you like it. You're used to me.”

Based on a 2003 book of the same title by Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin operates on two time-tracks.  In the present, Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) lives alone, tries to hold down a low-paying job at a strip-mall travel agency, and faces her status as pariah or outcast in the community.

In flashbacks, however, we see what events brought Eva to this unpleasant juncture in her life.

We see her fall in love with a man named Franklin (John C. Reilly) at an international tomato festival in Spain.  They make love, and marry, and soon welcome their first child, Kevin. 

Almost from moment one, Eva is remote and distant with her child.  Kevin cries incessantly, and she can’t stand the sound so she walks his baby carriage to construction sites to muffle the noise.   As Kevin grows, Eva is frustrated that he doesn’t speak or respond to her, though he seems to respond in a mostly healthy fashion to Franklin, his father.

One day when Kevin is six (but still not yet potty trained...), Eva breaks the boy’s arm when he intentionally goes to the bathroom in his diapers.  Eva is racked with guilt over her violence, but still, the distance from Kevin remains.  During one conversation about the impending arrival of a baby sister, Kevin suggests that though Eva is used to him, she doesn’t actually like him. 

Eva doesn’t dispute the child’s assessment.

As the years go by, Eva and Franklin grow further estranged, and matters with Kevin grow more troubling.  Although he shows an avid interest in archery, Kevin is still cool (and cruel) to his mother.  When Franklin decides he wants a divorce from Eva, Kevin overhears the discussion, apparently blames himself, and soon cryptically orders metal locks off the Internet in bulk. 

Then, he takes his bow and arrow – as well as the metal locks -- to a high school pep rally…

“Why would I not understand the context? I am the context.” 

We Need to Talk About Kevin’s director, Lynne Ramsey, frequently deploys the color red to express the nature of Eva’s life in the film. 

Red is the color of love and vitality and passion, but also the color, importantly, of blood.  The implication seems to be, through the crimson-hued imagery, that the “red” in Eva’s life turns from passion, excitement and freedom to the color of blood and death.  Finally, red becomes the scarlet letter or color of shame and community rage. 

And the thing that changed the color of Eva’s life from joy and freedom to pain and entrapment was the arrival of a son she didn’t really want, and doesn’t really love.

As We Need to Talk About Kevin opens, we see imagery showcasing Eva at the tomato festival in Spain.  She is covered in red tomato sauce, and lifted above a sea of undulating, half-naked bodies as if some kind of primitive fertility goddess.  The impression is of a woman who is totally and completely free.  The tomatoes here could almost be mistaken for flower petals as Eva revels in her glorious, picturesque independence.  Most of those around her are well-built men, stripped-down to the waist.  For at least a moment, she is the focus of their group attention and when raised up, she enjoys it.

Later, after Kevin is born, Eva no longer feels free.  She isn’t getting enough sleep, Kevin never stops crying, and she feels alone and isolated.  She tries to build a sense of “play” or adventure with Kevin, by playing ball with him.   But he doesn’t return or throw back to her the red ball.  There is no connection there; no give and take.  It’s already too late.  Eva’s entreaty for adventure and partnership is rejected by her son because she has demonstrated in her actions a rejection of him.

After Kevin goes on a murderous spree, an act covered in the blood of his classmates, Eva is shunned by her community.

By night, red paint -- symbolic of blood and shame -- is splattered on her house.  The red which once embodied her sense of freedom, now reminds Eva of her mistakes, and of the troubled child she brought into the world.    Now, Eva is put in the position of having to scrub the red -- both the happiness and the pain -- from her life.

At one point in the story, Eva hides in a grocery store from the mother of a deceased teenager -- one killed by Kevin -- and she cowers in front of rows and rows of tomato soup.  It’s a cruel joke and a cruel image.  The woman who reveled in the spilled tomatoes in Spain now cowers in a world of canned tomatoes. 

Like Eva, the (red) tomatoes have gone from representing freedom to symbolizing containment.

The color red shows up elsewhere in the film as well.  There are red chairs lining the wall of the strip-mall real estate agency where Eva works, a subtle reminder of the joy she once felt that is now reduced to mere furniture in a place that promises dreams. 

There’s also a shot of a half-eaten red apple and a red candle in Eva’s house, a visual representation of the fact that she can’t have freedom anymore because she has eaten the apple; the fruit from the tree of knowledge.  In other words, Eva knows what Kevin is.  And she knows what role she played in inflicting Kevin upon society.

Red is freedom at the tomato festival.

Red is freedom rejected.

Red is the scarlet letter of community shame.

You can't wash the stain of red away.

The (red) fruit of knowledge can't be un-learned.

Cruel irony: Eva now hides behind canned tomatoes...

There are other powerful images in We Need to Talk About Kevin, even beyond the use of the color red.  For instance, Eva constantly attempts to create a space for herself where she can relive the freedom she enjoyed before getting married and giving birth to Kevin.  She decorates a “special place” for herself in the family’s fancy McMansion: a room filled in every corner with detailed maps.  These are memories of places she has traveled, and a promise that she will travel there again, one day.

Even Eva’s job -- at a travel agency -- speaks of her desire to travel, and to be untethered from the responsibilities of family and Kevin.  She gazes longingly at destinations far, far away.

Also, Eva is depicted on a book-signing poster with the term “Legendary Adventurer.”  That particular composition is especially interesting because it is, again, surrounded by instances of red.  And when Kevin stands in front of it, his red sweatshirt supersedes it, replacing vitality and passion with horror and shame.

Kevin knows his Mom wants to escape, a fact symbolized by her room of maps.

Kevin (wearing red) countenances his mother's desire to escape again.

The desire to escape is reduced to making the dreams of others come true. (Notice the red chairs).

What are we to make of all this? 

We Need to Talk About Kevin provides many clues, but no direct answers.  There is a scene mid-way through the film wherein a very young Kevin spikes a fever and is suddenly rendered normal for an agonizingly short span. 

During his fever, he shows kindness, and reveals real love for his mother.  It is the first sign of a connection between them.  This scene suggests that Kevin’s damaged mental status is the real culprit here.

This development in the film reflects what has been termed a “eureka” moment in studies of Autism.  As was reported in 2009 by Jeffrey Kluger (Time: “Why Fever Helps Autism: A New Theory”): “Generations of parents of autistic kids have reported that when their child runs a fever, the symptoms of autism seem to abate.  When the fever goes down, the symptoms return.”

So this short, bittersweet scene suggests that Kevin is not wired correctly, and therefore a physiological condition is responsible for his demeanor and behavior, not Eva.

A fever returns Kevin to normal, although only briefly...

Contrarily, Eva clearly doesn’t want Kevin in her life, and doesn’t want to make accommodations for him.  She doesn’t affirm that she loves him on at least three important occasions, and can’t seem to escape the doldrums of “why me-ism” enough to attempt to reach out, or get Kevin the help he needs.   

The film makes a big point of providing Eva and Kevin nearly identical haircuts, and reveals that both are extremely judgmental about others (as witnessed at an afternoon miniature golf outing).  The point is not only that Eva doesn’t love Kevin, but that he has inherited from her some terrible qualities. In some ways, Eva seems as cold and emotional as Kevin does.

This movie is called We Need to Talk About Kevin, and yet, throughout the film, his parents never talk substantively about Kevin at all. 

His parents don’t discipline him effectively (if at all), and they never discuss with one another if their son should see a therapist, or be counseled for his anti-social tendencies.  This is where real parental responsibility comes in, and in the movie’s title we detect the narrative’s most important takeaway.

If you suspect your child is dangerous, you have a responsibility to both help that child with his or her condition, and make certain that society at large and other children are safe.  

This is where Eva really fails any reasonable test of parenthood.  She believes that Kevin intentionally injures his sister and kills her pet guinea pig, yet she can’t be roused from her doldrums of victimhood and entrapment to do anything about it.  You can’t blame Eva for being sad about her life, any more than you can blame Kevin for possessing a mental illness, but you can blame Eva (and her husband, Franklin) for not doing more to assure that their child is not a danger to the community.

Eva knows what Kevin is but does nothing to stop him or get him help.  All she sees is her own, ongoing entrapment and persistent victimhood.

The portions of the film that take place after Kevin’s murder spree reveal Eva’s deep shame and guilt about her failures.  She must live with her mistakes, as Kevin must certainly live with his.  Ironically, when film ends, Eva and Kevin are finally joined, but not necessarily through love.

Rather, they are joined through guilt.  

The emotional bond that they never shared begins in earnest only after society has rendered (a mutual) judgment.  They find one another only when everyone else has rejected them both.

What’s the point of We Need to Talk About Kevin’s even-handedness in considering what factors “made” Kevin? 

Well, as Kevin himself says, the point is that there isn’t one.  The point is not to blame, but to make sure that everyone is safe.

Lives are shattered and destroyed, and there is no one person at which to point the finger of blame, or ultimate responsibility.    In our culture, we believe parents are important.  And yet we also believe that, at some point, people must take responsibility for their own actions.  So when we ask “what went wrong?” there’s a split decision.

This is an equation we, as Americans, have seen again and again.  Read a book like Dave Cullen’s excellent Columbine (2010) and one gains a sense of sympathy for the parents of the school shooters.  You know they have gone through absolute, unending Hell.  And yet, by the same token, you wonder why they didn’t do anything about their children beforehand, when the warning signs -- as is the case in this movie -- were abundantly clear. 

If there is a point here, it’s that parents must not, in the day-to-day hustle of job, family and other responsibilities, forget that they live in a larger world.  They have obligations not just to their children, but to the children of others.  

Someone really did need to talk about Kevin, before it was too late.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:37 AM

    Hi :D John for a moment there I got "We need to talk about Kevin" mixed up with "Martin" Image if they were kin. Society has created a lot of Kevins than stigmatices them. Is there truly help for them once a human life is taken? It's the Kevins who don't get caught is cause for concern Yikes
    Sincerely, Kula May :D