We Need to Talk About Kevin

I knew basically nothing about We Need to Talk About Kevin going in except that it is about a teenage boy who perpetrates a school shooting.

When it started all artsy and non-chronological and impressionistic, I kept hoping that that was just some kind of introductory section to set the mood and foreshadow certain things, and that soon it would settle into a more conventional narrative style.

But, alas, it never did. The whole movie is like that. It jumps around wildly in time, and it expects you to function like a detective trying to piece together its random and unexplained snippets into some sort of coherent narrative. I think one or two scenes might even be fantasy sequences.

In the end, I feel like I have a decent grasp of the story, that I maybe picked up on 70%-80% of what I would have gotten if it had just been presented in a straightforward manner. But it was a struggle to do so, and not a struggle that made me think more of the movie, like it’s somehow deeper and more complex than a regular movie.

It’s more difficult—and I’ve used analogies like this in other of these essays—in the way that a book would be more difficult if every fifth letter were erased, if the chapters were shuffled up and placed in random order, or if the font were a third or a half the usual size. That’s not a good kind of difficult; it’s a pointless, pretentious, exhausting kind of difficult.

In spite of my being so simple-minded in my stylistic preferences, I experienced We Need to Talk About Kevin as a quite powerful, creepy film and I would give it at least a modest thumbs up. But if it had lacked all the artsy games I’m sure I’d be considerably more enthusiastic about it.

So let me now talk about the story as if it were presented more conventionally and chronologically, rather than trying to describe the peculiar way the film presents it.

Arguably Kevin, the eventual murderer, isn’t even the central figure of the film. It’s at least as much about his mother Eva (Hilda Swinton).

Eva is some kind of travel writer, I think, previously of a more bohemian or hippie lifestyle (though I get this as much from the little bit of reading about the film I did afterward as from the confusing film itself). But then she marries a schlubby guy named Franklin (John C. Reilly) and settles down to raise a family.

Along comes first child Kevin, who is a nightmare from the beginning. Eva bears the brunt of it, as she seems to have cut back to part time work at most and is the primary provider of child care, while Franklin is away at work most of the day.

As a baby, Kevin cries and screams relentlessly. As a toddler, when he’s not melting down he’s just staring demonically and wordlessly, and already at some level he seems to delight in making things as difficult and painful as he can for his mother. It’s like a not-at-all funny version of Stewie Griffin and his vendetta against mother Lois. I mean he really does come across like a little sadist, someone who has realized he can cause suffering to someone he hates and takes to doing so like a sane kid might to playing with a new favorite toy.

He remains in diapers several years later than a normal child, refusing to be toilet trained seemingly out of sheer cussedness and, again, because it causes Eva grief and requires gratuitous demeaning labor from her.

Certainly it’s not because he’s too stupid to figure out toilet training. There are flashes here and there indicating that if anything he’s highly intelligent. In one particularly chilling scene, as Eva painstakingly tries to encourage the petulant little Kevin to learn his numbers from 1 to 10, after staring cockily at her he finally deigns to speak for a change, first spitting out sarcastic answers to her questions, and then contemptuously counting flawlessly well past 10 and concluding with “Can we quit now?,” indicating that he’s way ahead of where she assumed he was mentally.

Through it all, as Eva becomes more and more convinced the little monster is a genuine sociopath, Franklin downplays the boy’s behavioral issues. As far as he can tell, Kevin is a handful, granted, somewhat more difficult and undisciplined than the average boy, but still within the normal range.

For example, when Kevin insults the way Eva has decorated her study and she responds by patiently explaining that it expresses her personality and is pleasing to her, as soon as she turns her back he viciously vandalizes the whole room, squirting paint all over the walls. When Franklin gets home and finds out what happened, he agrees that this is something to be concerned about and he agrees that Kevin was clearly in the wrong, but he points out that Kevin has apologized and feels really bad about it, and opines that it’s best just to accept this as one of those difficult moments of parenting and to be patient and get past it.

Some of this is because, like I say, Franklin isn’t around nearly as much, and frankly he seems like kind of a clueless guy in general. But some of it also is that Kevin manipulatively behaves differently—much better—toward him, making sure to send his parents mixed messages to cause uncertainty and conflict between them.

He even on one occasion shows rare warmth for his mother and rejects his father.

It’s interesting to speculate why he flips the script on that occasion, beyond just to keep them on their toes and guessing. A couple of things came to mind for me.

One has to do with the event that immediately preceded his sudden (very temporary) display of affection toward Eva. He had blatantly, intentionally, sneeringly, soiled himself so that she’d have to change his diaper, after she had just changed it, and in frustration she had kind of flung him away from her, resulting in his losing his balance, landing awkwardly, and breaking his arm.

He tells her years later that “That was the one time you were honest with me.” Because 99% of the time we see them interact, when she is attempting to discipline him, instruct him, get him to behave a certain way, etc., she either uses that patronizing tone of exaggerated patience that adults almost always lapse into when they’re addressing children (which I found grating as a child and still do when I witness it now), or tells him she loves him and all the stuff parents are supposed to say in a tone like she’s reading a script.

So one possibility is that he appreciated that flash of “honesty,” or maybe respected her a little for finally showing strength and inflicting some kind of consequences on him for his bullshit.

But the way I read it, what is a little more likely is that he instinctively knew that this minimal display of warmth toward her was a way to further manipulate her and set her up to hurt her more in the future.

For years she has gotten basic zero love reciprocated from her child. Now if he doles out even the most modest amount of it, she’s going to be thrilled and appreciative about it, and let him get away with even more in the future than she otherwise might since now she sees some hope. Maybe he doesn’t want her to give up on him and on their relationship entirely; that wouldn’t serve his purposes. So he puts the hook in her with this rare affectionate behavior.

By the time he’s a teenager—and a little sister is now a part of the family—he seems to have settled into something more like how his father read him when he was younger. That is, more troubled than the average teen, more of a dick than the average teen, but within the normal range. You know, lippy, sarcastic, defiant, but not as blatantly, creepily, inhuman as before. And still noticeably better behaved (though still a dick) toward his father than toward his mother.

But you get the sense that that’s strategic, the ruse of a sociopath. Partly that’s because it has already been foreshadowed in this non-chronological film that he becomes a murderer. But it’s also in his eyes, in the way he carries himself. He’s playing with these people because it’s not in his self-interest to antagonize them more than he already has and risk consequences such as a diminution in his freedom, greater scrutiny, etc. Franklin doesn’t see that. Eva sort of does but is by now exhausted and out of ideas of what to do about it, at most occasionally going through the motions of doing what she thinks a good mother is supposed to do (which Kevin makes sure to humiliate her for).

But when the little sister shows up with an eye patch in the scenes when she’s older (remember, it’s all out of sequence), that’s one of the most ominous elements to the movie, at least for me, because you know Kevin must have done something terrible to her. It never feels like his evil is gone; it’s just that it’s more often a bit below the surface now that he’s older.

Though his rampage at the school is saved until almost the end (and not shown in an explicit, gory way when it does happen), roughly half the scenes are from the aftermath, so the story extends quite a ways beyond it.

By now Eva is alone. She takes a demeaning, low level job in a travel agency, where she is mostly shunned and treated badly. On the street people accost her and insult her; in one case a woman slaps her in the face. Her house and car are vandalized with red, blood-like, paint.

The problem is, she’s still living in the same community, and the local people either hate her or see her as a figure of curiosity, a freak.

There is one exception. A teenage boy in a wheelchair—clearly one of Kevin’s victims—calls out to her on the street and then converses briefly with her to ask about her well-being and to share the good news from his doctors that there’s at least some chance he’ll be able to walk again.

It’s a really striking gesture of kindness, and you wonder why it has to be an exception. What did she do, after all, to deserve such fury and ill-treatment? Her son committed the crimes, not her. She went through hell for 16 years doing her best to parent in impossible circumstances. She’s a victim herself. But apparently only one person, a child himself, recognizes that and expresses compassion for her. (By the way, is this even realistic? In actual school shooter situations, do the overwhelming majority of people in the community treat the parents of the perpetrator like shit, as if they’re at fault?)

But the obvious question is, why does she still live there, where she is treated like that?

What I infer is that there is a certain masochism to it, or a desire for punishment (kind of like with the main character in Manchester by the Sea). Apparently she holds herself responsible for what happened to some degree, so she stoically accepts all the abuse, mostly just drifting along looking defeated and lifeless but not quite ready to give up completely.

Like I say, I don’t agree that it’s her fault, but in reading about the movie afterwards I found that commentators commonly say that we’re to infer that she never wanted kids, she never wanted this conventional life, and so she subtly parented poorly out of resentment, making her failure to bond with her son at least as much her fault as his. Indeed, the filmmaker in an interview apparently affirmed this, saying that the mother is not to be let off the hook here. Evidently that’s Eva’s position as well, that her shortcomings as a mother are partly to blame for what Kevin became and what Kevin did, and thus she passively accepts the community’s hatred and disrespect as her due.

I still think that’s unjustifiably harsh toward her. I’m not saying she was a perfect parent; for one thing, like I say, she routinely adopted that patronizing, artificial tone when addressing Kevin. But, heck, that’s 90% of adults. All indications are that Kevin was a fucking monster from the day he was born, the kind of sociopath that is difficult if not impossible to ever reach and change for the better no matter how skilled a parent you are. Whatever fault she bears is miniscule, as far as I’m concerned.

By the way, when Kevin went off on his killing spree, why didn’t he kill her, his number one nemesis? I wonder if it’s not related to what I’ve just been discussing. Maybe he thought that being the mother of a mass murderer, and having to live with the guilt, the social abuse, and all the rest, was a fate worse than death. Maybe in his way he was manifesting a greater hatred by sparing her than he would have by killing her.

Aside from the kooky structure, We Need to Talk About Kevin works as far as being emotionally hard-hitting and creepy. There are a few images that are unnerving and potentially nightmare-inducing. (Even though most of the gruesome stuff occurs off camera, we do briefly see two of his victim’s corpses. I’m also thinking of every scene where the little sister is wearing that eyepatch, since we know with nauseating certainty what it must mean. Also, there’s the silent little fucker’s hate-filled eyes when he’s a toddler.) I was glued to the screen throughout this movie.

But it may be that a lot of that is just that the subject matter of school massacres is so mesmerizingly terrible, rather than a reflection of the film being skillfully done.

I probably liked the Gus Van Sant school shooting movie Elephant—itself of an unconventional, artsy style—about equally as much as this one. Parts of it were more dull and unengaging than We Need to Talk About Kevin, but its intense parts were maybe a little more intense. Overall, probably close to a wash.

I’d take And Then I Go at least narrowly over either of them. To me, the murderers in that film felt more realistic, like kids I might encounter in real life. We Need to Talk About Kevin has just a bit more of a horror movie feel to it. I suppose there are kids as sociopathic as Kevin in real life, but intuitively I guess I have trouble accepting that. He feels more like a movie monster than a real person to me.

In any case, I won’t soon forget this movie.

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