Much later, when I'd become the mother of two young kids -- one of whom was in school -- we all heard the news of the killings in Columbine, and our world changed. It was the first of many such incidents which left our country scrambling for answers. How does a child become a seemingly remorseless killer? The media has rounded up the usual suspects, everything from bad parenting to an overabundance of violent video games and heavy metal music. In our eagerness to wrap our minds around something that baffles and terrifies us, we clutch at every possible explanation.
Unsurprisingly, grappling with the tragedy of school shootings has become part of the zeitgeist of our time, reflected in various novels and movies. Among the most recent is Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin, adapted from the novel of the same title by Lionel Shriver.
This film tells its story from the perspective of Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), mother of Kevin, a high school student who, at age 15, took the lives of some of his classmates. Treated as a pariah by the community and in greatly reduced financial circumstances, Eva accepts a job with a small travel agency. As she goes through her quotidian routines, she is treated with rage or contempt everywhere she goes. Even a simple trip to the grocery store becomes a humiliating ordeal.
The story we see on screen is almost a stream of consciousness, shifting back and forth in time. We see her in the present, going through the motions of living and enduring silent visits with Kevin in the juvenile detention facility. We catch glimpses of happier times, before she and her husband had children, snippets of the incident at the high school, which crushed so many lives, and a jumble of memories of her life with Kevin, from conception through adolescence. Although Eva says little about what is going through her mind, I sense that she's reliving the past, remembering Kevin as a disturbed boy, and wondering whether she, in some way, is to blame.
Eva appears to have been ambivalent about pregnancy and new motherhood. Kevin's infancy was difficult -- he seems to have had colic and cried constantly. We get the impression that, because of all this, Eva had a great deal of difficulty bonding with her son. Are we meant to believe this contributed to Kevin's blossoming sociopathy?
As a small child, Kevin develops atypically, showing what might be interpreted as signs of autism -- he doesn't talk, doesn't respond to attempts to engage him in play, has low muscle tone, and is very late potty training. Of course, people on the autism spectrum don't tend to be sociopathic. And even from a tender age, we see something dark and unnerving in Kevin. Eva sometimes responds badly to his behavior, locking them both in a vicious cycle.
Eva's husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), who plays a disappointingly small role in this film, seems to bond easily with Kevin. We see Kevin deliberately cultivate that while treating his mother with contempt -- artfully playing his parents against each other. And as Kevin grows from a scary kid to a dangerous teenager, Franklin remains solidly in denial. (Which doesn't explain, to my satisfaction, why Eva didn't insist on getting the child professional help. Is there a part of her that's in denial too? Is she hobbled by her own guilt? But I digress.)
It's easy to see why this movie received so much critical acclaim. Tilda Swinton was magnificent -- her portrayal of Eva, a woman whose world has constricted tightly around her leaving her with little but grief and regret, is harrowing. While I didn't find her a particularly likeable character, she earned my empathy and respect. Ezra Miller's performance, as the adolescent Kevin, is chilling. He is a young actor to watch.
I found the abrupt shifts in time a bit confusing but incredibly effective. I felt like I was seeing the world through Eva's mind, constantly churning with memories, regrets, and disturbing flashbacks. This was enhanced by skillful cinematography and glimpses of stillness and silence at just the right moments.
The movie left me with plenty of questions. Here is one. The story is told from Eva's point of view; to what degree are her memories skewed? When Kevin was a small child, we see a deliberate maliciousness in his refusal to respond to her efforts to help him develop normally. Was this real? Or was this a product of her imagination, addled with weariness and frustration? Did Kevin actually coldly play his parents against each other as we see him doing on screen? Or did Eva's difficult emotions at that time skew her memories? Was Franklin really as frustratingly oblivious to Kevin's problems as she remembers? Is her perception that nearly everyone treats her with hostility accurate? Or is she, in some sense, an unreliable narrator?
This movie is incredibly disturbing, especially to a viewer who happens to be a mom. It's also thought-provoking. It's likely to leave viewers wrestling with questions about what triggers sociopathy in children. What causes evil to grow where we expect to see only innocence? What role, if any, do the parents play in this? Do we scapegoat the parents of seriously disturbed youngsters? None of us are perfect parents (believe me), but people find it surprisingly easy to cast the first stone. Maybe that makes people feel safe. If the parents of evil or seriously disturbed youngsters are horrible people, then what's happening to them won't touch us. We're good people. Our children will turn out O.K.
If only life were so simple.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is an impressive film. A very visual style of storytelling, which lets us into Eva's world while wisely not revealing too much, outstanding acting and direction, and artful cinematography -- along with difficult and timely themes -- make this movie incredibly memorable.
Do I recommend it? Absolutely. Will I ever watch it again? Hell no. I am reading the novel though, hoping for more insight into these characters. Because that's just the kind of masochist I am.
|Cherished Favorite||Excellent Film||Good Movie||Meh||Definitely Not|
As a parent, this disturbed me as well. I definitely reccommend reading the book though. It's told from an entirely different structure. It's still Eva, but how she tells it is different. I love the book and the movie so much.ReplyDelete
Thanks! I'm only about 50 pages or so into the book, and I'm really starting to like it. I'm not finding Eva and Franklin very likeable, though. I wonder whether that will change?Delete
Good review Steph. I can definitely understand how, considering the subject matter, a parent would be forced to reflect upon themselves, and, unfortunately. it inevitabley would lead them to self doubt and even self persecution.ReplyDelete
I think that's true. Though outside of extreme circumstances, I don't believe bad parenting could create a sociopathic personality like this.Delete
Random note here, but the kid that plays Kevin in this film is also starring in that Perks of Being A Wallflower movie.ReplyDelete
Anyway, can we agree that watching that actor play any other role other than Kevin, will be extremely difficult?
Yes, I think that will be difficult, Sam. :-) Though, as I was saying, I think this is a young actor to watch. And this will definitely give us a chance to see his range.Delete
Great review. I read the book some years back and enjoyed it. Well, "enjoyed" perhaps isn't the right word considering the context. I do think that the film was more disturbing, however.ReplyDelete
I agree with what you've said about it being produced well, but not wanting to watch it again.
I'm also unsure how I'll perceive the actor in Perks of Being a Wallflower - the role seems too innocent for him to play!
I hope to review the novel soon; it's definitely well written and intriguing. It's interesting that you found the film more disturbing. I think I can see why. The book is slow and introspective, while there is a raw immediacy about the movie.Delete
I've seen the novel around blogland and it does sound like a disturbing and thought provoking story. Great review. It's such a scary thought that a child can do something so evil. Inevitably parents will questions themselves but who knows why such horrible things happen.ReplyDelete
I hope you enjoy the book as the book usually gives more insight into the characters.
I can imagine Tilda Swinton did an excellent job in the film.
Thank you, Naida. I am enjoying the book so far, and I am looking for more insight into the characters. Though like the movie, it may leave me with more questions than answers.Delete
This film is so disturbing, chilling, and at times, very hard to watch but it’s terribly tense with a near-perfect performance from Swinton, who I usually don’t like but here she’s absolutely amazing and definitely deserved that Oscar nomination. Great review Stephanie.ReplyDelete
Thank you, Dan. And I agree with your description of the movie.Delete
Terrific review! I thought it was a great film and felt a little bit like it was made by David Lynch at times, because of surrealistic images and the cinematography. I never wondered how reliable is Eva as narrator but you make some very good points, after all we don't really know what was real and what was exaggerated.ReplyDelete
Great point about the comparison to Lynch. I thought the surreal aspects and the cinematography did a great job of capturing the disorientation one would experience in the aftermath of a tragedy like this.Delete
Good review, Steph. I actually bought this one on dvd recently, looking to watch it for the first time. I'm just wondering whether I'll be wanting to see it more than once though.ReplyDelete
I'll be very interested to hear what you think. Maybe it's more disturbing to me, being a mother, than it will be to you. But you never know.Delete
One of my fave films of 2011! Great review, given me a few extra things to think about and more ammo to fire at people who hated it (including my Dad!)ReplyDelete
Thank you for your kind words, Pete. Why did your dad hate the movie?Delete
Great review! We Need To Talk About Kevin sticks in my mind, and is in my top 10 of 2011.ReplyDelete
The approach to storytelling is very different to the book-which is I’ve heard is a series of letters.Ahh, the denial issue you mention, the title I think is important, they “need” to talk about Kevin, but do they? The difficulty bonding with her son, maybe a post-birth depression? Yes, agree movie left me with plenty of questions, also about possible unreliable narrator, the mother remembering only the bad stuff during a depression perhaps, who knows if she just didn't see the goodness from those around her.
Overall, I liked how we are treated as an intelligent audience and there is space to interpret.
Here's my review, if you're interested:
Chris, Great comment, and I will definitely check out your review. I like what you said about us being treated as an intelligent audience with space for our interpretations. I appreciated this about the movie, too.Delete
I believe Eva did have post-natal depression. This was said outright in the book, but I also picked up on it in the movie. That scene where she is sitting alone in the bed after the birth, just staring, made that clear, I think. That, along with a baby who never stops crying (loved the scene where she went to listen to the sound of a jackhammer at a construction site, just to get some relief :-)) -- well, these things can definitely interfere with mother-baby bonding.
You made an insightful comment about only remembering the bad stuff because of depression. During times of depression, our memories are filtered through those dark feelings, I think. And her recollections would certainly be colored by subsequent events.
I definitely thought there were some questions here. Was her toddler really giving her a defiant glare when he didn't roll the ball back to her or giving her an evil leer when he pooped his pants? Seriously? :-) This portrayal of how feelings and subsequent experiences color memories was one of the things that made the movie brilliant, in my opinion.
(On the other hand, my daughter disagreed with my interpretation. She thought Kevin, even as a small child, was really that bent. :-) You could make a case either way, I think.)
Great review here. It's SUCH a disturbing movie, but one that I loved and appreciated all the same. And I completely agree with you - loved it, but I doubt I'll be watching it again anytime soon (if not ever).ReplyDelete
Well done, Stephanie!
Thank you, Alex. Yes ... watching this movie and reading the novel will be one a one-time thing for me. I've been joking that I'm glad this wasn't written 20 years ago -- it might've put me off having kids. :-)Delete
Oh god, that was so funny but frightening! There's that whole, What If... suspicion.Delete
I didn't read your review all the way through (I haven't seen the film and I want to avoid spoilers), but I'm truly excited to see this one. Hope it's good as you say it is!ReplyDelete
I hope you like this movie ("enjoy" would be the wrong word.) And I hope you'll come back and share your thoughts after you see it. :-)Delete
Excellent review! I'm sure I'll watch the film again at some point, but it's so off-putting that it will be awhile before that happens. :)ReplyDelete
I don't know how, but I always manage to miss some of your posts. Catching up now. :-P
Thank you, Josh. I appreciate your reading and your kind words. I am really glad I saw this film, and it was brilliantly done. But I'm pretty sure I'll never watch it again.Delete
Yes, yes it was disturbing and I liked your 11th paragraph, really does get you thinking.ReplyDelete