We Need to Talk About Kevin appears to have lost quite a bit in the adaptation from literature to film. For those who don’t know, the story focuses on the eponymous Kevin, who kills several students at his high school in a Columbine-like massacre. However, the actual event isn’t the focus, and it plays out largely off-screen at the end of the film. Instead, we spend time with Kevin’s mother after the fact, as she tries to live her life in the wake of what her son has done and endures the hatred of her local township. Flashbacks show us Kevin’s upbringing, and supposedly posit the question of nature vs. nurture.
Tilda Swinton has made a career of playing characters caught in the middle of emotionally grueling struggles. On the surface she’s a fine actress, but her technique is always the same, and she gravitates towards characters and scripts that require her to do very little emotionally, to play a sort of a scarred wasteland of the human spirit in a state of gestating shock. She’s stated in interviews that she chooses these roles because she identifies with these sorts of characters, and that she’s drawn to protagonists who are emotionally very neutral, closed off, and shut-down. I think it actually bespeaks a larger problem for the actress, simply that she is herself is very emotionally shut-down. She lets the circumstances of the narrative, the visual work of the director, and the work of the other actors do her job for her. This may sound unnecessarily harsh, and perhaps I’m overstating it, but emotions are a huge part of an actor’s pallette. It seems odd to me to keep consciously making the choice to avoid emotion in her work rather than exploring it. It would be like a painter choosing not to work with color, or a doctor trying to practice without surgery or medicine.
Director Ramsey seems to compensate by using a lot of red. A LOT of red. From the opening of the movie, when we see a pre-pregnancy Eve Khatchadourian at some ritual festival where everyone is half-naked and awash in tomato juice, to the red paint she spends much of the film trying to clean off her house and car after a paint bombing from irate neighbors, red is everywhere. It’s obviously representative of the bloodbath she had to witness, and likely the color that haunts her every moment, but the constant use of it is unrelentingly over-the-top.
My biggest criticism of the film is that it doesn’t really explore the central themes I’ve heard are at the heart of the book, namely Eve’s struggle with the question of whether or not she was an unfit mother, and how much her attitude towards Kevin as he grew up may have caused him to feel unloved, become the person he did, and ultimately commit the atrocities he did. It’s obvious in the movie that Eve has gone through some kind of post-partum depression, and Kevin’s constant screaming as an infant is so unbearable that in one scene she stops with his stroller next to a construction crew just to drown out his cries and get a moment’s peace. Yes, the sound of pneumatic drilling is heaven compared to Kevin’s constant wails. But it’s made fairly equally obvious that Eve isn’t responsible for Kevin’s unrest, that he’s simply an unbearably colicky child. And Eve never stops trying to love Kevin. In fact, her effort borders on the super-human.
And Kevin is a bad seed from the get-go. Even as a young child, everything he does is with a scowl, a leer, and a grumpy voice. He seems as flat-out evil as any one of the leads in a number of films about demonic children. And through it all, Eve keeps trying to love him. Kevin, on the other hand, will instantly change personalities the moment his father walks in the door. He’ll present a very different attitude, all the time leering at his mother, letting both her and us know that it’s all an act. And this is where the movie loses so much of it’s complexity. Even when Eve lashes out at Kevin in a moment of exasperation and causes an accidental injury, we still sympathize with her. Kevin is presented as so willfully demonic that there’s really not much of a question as to how responsible Eve is for his behavioral development, even if it still remains something that haunts the character herself. We’ve seen everything happen from an audience’s objective viewpoint, or at least objective in the sense that we don’t have Eve’s feelings of guilt and personal responsibility. So all of the internal dialogue about her culpability, which seems to be so much the heart of the novel, is essentially lost here.
It’s still a tragedy, still horrible, and we still feel for Eve. There just doesn’t seem to be much of a question as to the “why” of it. I suppose another question that could be asked is whether Eve should have recognized exactly how bad Kevin was going to get, and have done something preventative about it when she had the chance. But this doesn’t really seem so be a concern of the film, either; Eve is simply haunted in the wake of what has happened, not so much by could-haves or should-haves. Even at the very end of the film, when she has a confrontation with Kevin, and he seems clearer than he ever has been, he doesn’t seem capable of good. He’s simply gotten to a point where he realizes that on some level what he’s done is wrong, and he’s more honest about his own confusion and his state of being lost in the world. There’s no real grief, no sense of personal responsibility or morality; it’s simply that Kevin has realized that whatever insane reasons he had for doing what he did were likely intangible, the product of a very spiritually-bereft soul.
There are certainly questions as to why Eve would continue to visit him in prison, and I think the only answers are that a) she herself needs an answer and some understanding, and b) he’s still her son and in some way she still loves him, even in spite of herself. In fact, she seems unable to not love him, even when she sees him as this horrible, foreign monster of a creature. There’s some sleight ambiguity about whether or not she hugs him to punish him– if she realizes that the only thing that can cause him pain is having to endure love. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think she hugs him because she can’t help herself, in spite of everything. And again, this is more evidence of how little she had to do with Kevin’s turn, and how some people are perhaps simply born bad and irretrievably lost.
To punctuate this, there’s even a moment in the film where Kevin falls and has a seizure of some sort and throws up. This creates some sort of personality shift, and for about twenty-four hours, he’s actually loving towards his mother and short with his father. It’s as though the two have switched places in his heart. But the next day it’s back to normal, and he’s back to being the evil seed. Obviously, this functions to show us that there is some behavioral disorder going on with Kevin, or that there’s some underlying personality disorder, and it’s not simply the result of not being loved enough by his mother. But even then, Eve can’t really be held at fault, as in another scene we do see her take Kevin to a doctor to have him examined, worried that such a thing might be a possibility, and the doctors give him a clean bill of health.
We Need to Talk About Kevin still manages to raise a few questions. It’s still a well-made and intelligent film. But I think it would have been an even better one with an actress who isn’t so focused on pursuing the non-emotional. And the narrative would have benefited from being more open-ended about where the responsibility for Kevin’s condition lay. Instead, too many valuable questions are circumvented by oversimplification and even dismissal.
From a pure performance standpoint, all of the Kevins are fantastic, and play the kind of pure evil director Ramsay obviously wants, from Ezra Miller as the teen Kevin, to Jasper Newell as the child Kevin, even to Rock Duer as the toddler Kevin. Ashley Gerasimovich is equally excellent as Kevin’s sister Celia, and we’re forever worried for her well-being around the Satan-spawn. And John C. Reilly is great as the loving and happy father, a bit of a departure for him. He never sees the dark side of Kevin, and is always the first to dismiss Eve’s fears and worries, always believing them to be exaggerations. In his eyes, Kevin is just a good, average kid with a mother who doesn’t really understand that boys can be a little temperamental or sometimes not always have a strong enough sense of responsibility. He has absolutely no concept of the darkness lying behind what he keeps downplaying. The difference in the two parents’ attitudes, and the way Kevin is always mainpulating his father, gives the film some of the little shading it has. Besides red, that is.