Based on the novel of the same name, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a strange sort of thriller in that nothing especially thrilling ever happens. There is an ever-looming sense of dread over the entire film, and its fractured narrative does nothing to dispel the notion that something absolutely terrible is going to happen. Anyone that follows film most likely heard about Kevin‘s debut at the Cannes Film Festival where it won high praise and a distribution deal through Oscilloscope Laboratories, the distribution company run by Adam Yauch, more commonly known as MCA of the Beastie Boys.
Now the film is out in their typical arthouse release pattern, and Tilda Swinton has been recognized for her excellent acting in the film. The movie centers on Kevin (Ezra Miller, among others), the product of his two parents Franklin (John C. Reilly) and Eva (Tilda Swinton), a couple that never seemingly knew what they wanted until they are blessed with the young boy. Early on, Eva realizes something about Kevin is not exactly right when he doesn’t speak until a very late age, and later, seemingly refuses to be potty trained. In a fit of frustration, Eva throws Kevin like a sack of potatoes, and despite the abuse, Kevin doesn’t seem to be bothered by it. As he gets older, his behavior gets increasingly suspicious.
As I said, the film has a fractured narrative, so early on we are treated to the downside of Eva’s life, where locals throw red paint on her house and car, and she has trouble finding employment because she is the mother of a school shooter. Flashbacks show her life with Franklin, their raising of Kevin, and the coming of their daughter Celia.
And every so often, when Eva is having a bad day, we are treated to the nightmare that was the night of the shooting, the night that changed her life forever. It cuts back and forth, showing how hard Eva’s life currently is, and how difficult it was raising Kevin, a vindictive child with a heavy mean streak and a darkness that is matched by few. While Eva sees his disturbing behavior grow, Franklin sees just a boy, one that might have a bit of a problem attitude, but just a boy nonetheless. Franklin and Kevin spend quality time together, where Franklin teaches the boy archery, which he practices with disturbing coolness.
Then, things get weird. Celia’s guinea pig goes missing, only to be found by Eva in a very disturbing spot. When she takes out the cleaning supplies to clean up Kevin’s disturbing mess, she may, or may not, have left the cleaning chemicals out. Kevin calls the ambulance when his sister ends up with the cleaning chemicals in her eye, but Eva suspects he may have had something to do with the accident.
As we are treated to Eva’s post-shooting life, filled with depressing episodes and angry neighbors and locals, we begin to understand that there is nothing she could have done to change Kevin, and his mean streak is something he can hide very well when he wants to, disturbing Eva further. The final act is where all her worst nightmares come true, and we learn the fate of her entire family, from Kevin to Celia and Franklin. We learn why she is such a broken person, and we can do nothing but feel sorry for her.
The film is an examination of what makes a psychopath a psychopath. Is it the fact that Kevin was just born a psychopath, or was he pushed there by his home environment, or school? It’s a question without an answer, and the film does a great job at leaving it open ended while still finding resolution within itself. We see Kevin’s destructiveness in ways that only Eva sees, while the rest of the world sees a slightly troubled boy with a bad attitude and a strange outlook on life. Even Franklin, her husband, is blind to who Kevin really is. Eva must swallow her anger and resentment toward Kevin’s behavior in an effort to not make it worse, but in the end, she questions if the lack of confrontation about his character is what allowed him to grow into a monster. Again, the question can’t be answered, but it presents all sides to the question, leaving the viewer to decide for themselves.
The incredible detail of We Need To Talk About Kevin is what makes this art and not just a flashy drama about a controversial subject. The often disturbing imagery is usually nothing more than some smashed food, or paint, but all the same, it’s the way in which this imagery is presented that makes it unsettling, the long, slow shots focusing on texture and bright colors that lead your mind astray. And then, the grotesque imagery becomes actually grotesque within the framework of the plot, I’m sure shocking some. Not the first film about school shootings, and certainly not the last, but an interesting, well made one at the very least. I still think Gus Van Sant’s Elephant is overall a superior film (even though I absolutely hated it the first time I saw it), albeit with much different motivations and characters. Still, it’s a film that will get people talking, and the acting is nothing to take lightly.
Tilda Swinton has gotten a lot of attention for her role as the down and out Eva, but I feel that praise is missing the point of Ezra Miller‘s performance, all Swinton had to do was react. Reilly has the rather thankless role of Franklin, who really isn’t given much to do except to juxtapose his relationship with Kevin against Eva’s. The final act is less a resolution than a continuation of the story. Sometimes this will backfire into ambiguity, but here, it makes a steadfast point. While I liked the acting, the message, and the way the film was made, it is a truly unsettling film, and one I don’t feel I will ever be revisiting. Which, in my estimation, proves the film’s point that this is a subject no one wants to keep revisiting, even though we need to, and often.