dir: Lynne Ramsay
We Need to Talk About Kevin is pretty brutal. Actually, it’s beyond brutal. It’s one of the most brutal depictions of the terror involved in becoming a parent that I’ve ever seen.
It’s terrifying enough becoming a parent, bringing a new person into the world, trying to shepherd them towards becoming a decent person (if you have the capability or inclination, that is, because I’m sure there’s plenty of terrible parents who don’t give a damn). Mix in with that those feelings of ambivalence, of momentary regret a parent might have, lamenting the loss of their freedom, of their self-determination sacrificed on the altar of being a ‘good’ parent, which can manifest in anger towards that child, and consider the range of emotions that conjures up.
And then wonder whether monsters are born or made, and whether that monster, which is your own, became so because of everything you did, some of the things you did, or nothing you did, and know that there can never be a definitive answer, and there you have the crux of this whole, harrowing story.
Such a complicated premise isn’t going to be told in a straight-forward fashion, so the story jumps around in time, creating parallels and juxtapositions through the different timelines that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Throughout all looms that titan of cinema known as Tilda.
To this day, I still find how great she is as an actress to be staggering. It staggers the mind. This could be one of the most difficult roles of her career, a career abundant with difficult roles, but there’s no doubt that there’s no one else on the planet that could have played it as brilliantly as she does. Meryl Streep couldn’t have touched this with a ten-foot pole constructed entirely of Oscars on her best day. Of course Tilda deserves Oscars and such, but she’s not going to get them for this role. It’s way too much, and way too dark.
Her performance is too great, and the flick is too harrowing. She’s in almost every scene, and her acting has as much if not more to do with her physical performance, her body language, her grimaces of feigned levity, the pain and grief she carries in her eyes. This woman, when we first see her, is as happy as she’s ever going to be in these opening moments. Everything else, from then on, will be agony leavened only momentarily with brief moments where she forgets everything that’s happened. Only for the briefest of moments does she get slivers of grace.
It’s a lot to forget. Those opening moments try to encapsulate the freedom and joy Eva (Tilda Swinton) used to experience as part of her life. She’s at one of those festivals, Spanish, I think, where they celebrate harvest time, or the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, perhaps, by throwing tonnes and tonnes of tomatoes at each other. She’s covered in red, and ecstatic about it.
We see her in red quite often later on; red paint, red light, but for very different reasons. The intercutting of the two timelines shows us an Eva before she became a parent, and the Eva who she becomes long after Kevin has come along. Something terrible has happened, we slowly learn, and feel with increasing dread, that has rendered Eva something of the walking dead, but we’re not going to understand entirely until long after.
We get the clear impression that, once she meets Franklin (John C. Reilly) and falls pregnant, her perfectly free life has hit something of a snag. She was a celebrated travel writer, after all. Globetrotting, adventuring; the world was her oyster, and it tasted good.
But then. And then. Kevin comes along. Kevin, even as a baby, doesn’t seem to like Eva, his ambivalent mother. Do you think, maybe, the kid somehow innately picks up on the fact that his mother doesn’t completely want him, or love him? Do you think that Eva's inability to bond with her child is the single determinate of all the horror that comes later?
Of course not, that would be silly. But the question lingers, swells and diminishes, weaving its way throughout the story and Eva’s mind, impossible to put aside, impossible to discard, impossible to ignore.
She clutches her crying baby, smiling at him, grimacing more like it as she begs him in word and thought to stop crying. So exhausted, and so tired of the sound of his crying she becomes, that a few minutes next to a jackhammer on the street actually brings her peace.
Of course, as soon as her husband gets home, and picks up the child, as the mother begs him not to, since he’s only finally shut up in the last few minutes, the baby is fine, even happy. Herein starts the battle between Kevin and Eva, a battle which can’t be won.
It’s impossible for this to be ‘true’, as in, the manner in which Kevin is set up to be, in relation to his two parents, starts here for us as observers, and it’s impossible for an infant to be able to be capable of the level of calculation. But it feels true. Of course all of it is ‘true’ in Eva’s eyes, because no-one else can see what Kevin is right from the start, but that’s because Kevin seems to be doing all of this for Eva’s eyes only.
Even as a child, he seems to be preternaturally capable of malice, of manipulating all and sundry, with a skill that is frightening. And it just doesn’t, shouldn’t be able to make any sense. We shouldn’t be able to see a child with eyes that hide an abyss behind, nor should it make sense to us that all of Eva’s fumbling attempts to avert that abyss are both useless and making everything worse. We ‘believe’ Eva’s perspective, what she’s seeing, even as it shouldn’t make sense, but her actions, whether right or wrong, are believable and human.
I’m not saying they’re the right decisions or right actions, especially during a scene where she actually wounds Kevin in anger, I’m just saying the character’s responses are believable for the character. It’s easy and knee-jerky to condemn Eva outright for all that transpires within the flick, and within Kevin, but that’s such a pointless and reductive approach, which would only really point to the limitations of the viewer.
Eva carries a shitload of guilt for everything that transpires, but it’s not because she’s necessarily guilty. The worth of the story, if it has any worth, is that she’s neither guilty nor innocent, that she can be either, that such a delineation can’t really help in this instance or make any meaningful sense.
She can blame herself, like the residents of her town clearly do, subjecting Eva to abuse and violence on the street, and throwing red paint on the front of her house and her car, or she can avoid blaming herself in some way imaginable, and it would make no difference to her or the world. She’d still be a pariah, and Kevin will still be what Kevin is, and the world in which her life was destroyed utterly will roll along without them.
It’s such a strong portrayal by Tilda, with the highly disturbing job done by Ezra Miller as teenaged Kevin running a close second, that none of anything I’ve said should serve as a ringing endorsement of the flick, nor should it be seen as anything close to a fun night out at the movies. This is a horror film, not in the genre sense, but in the sense that it engenders within the viewer a feeling of such dread that it’s almost unbearable. Especially parents. There could not be a worse scenario as a parent, seeing and experiencing what Eva does watching her child grow up and become what he does. All the great acting and shot composition and visual styling carrying through the themes and the ideas they want to get across make this very hard viewing, because it’s done so tremendously well, not in spite of it.
People are probably going to argue over Eva’s essential nature, more so than Kevin’s, since his nature is not in doubt by flick’s end, but the flick never really conclusively tries to argue either way on Eva’s personality, and her culpability. Of course, that’s not going to stop legions of people taking sides. It doesn’t even come down to nature versus nurture as a zero-sum argument, since we see plenty of examples as to how it could be both.
I did find it fascinating to watch, and gutting at the same time, mostly just wondering what new horror or indignity Eva’s character was going to suffer before finding some kind of understanding, or some kind of peace, neither of which are ultimately forthcoming. And yet, for all that, there’s something about the last scene between mother and son that’s horrible and touching at the same time. That it shouldn’t work is uppermost in our minds, that we shouldn’t perhaps feel what we feel, whether it’s sorrow or revulsion, and yet we do.
I can’t recommend it to anyone. It’s too disturbing, too upsetting, too good at what it does to walk into freely, with sound mind and body, and to expect to walk out unscathed. I wouldn’t even call it an antidote to a lot of the mindless pap bullshit we see in movies about how wonderful parenthood is, and about people with misgivings just sucking it up and eventually realising what fools they were before they became breeders.
Finally, an honest flick tells it like it is: some people should not be parents. Some people are not redeemed and transformed by having children. Some monsters are born, and others are made, and if you’re the parent who never wanted kids in the first place, or the one who did, it’s doesn’t make a lick of difference once the catastrophe happens.
What cheery thoughts. I think I need a shower and a drink, but not in that order.
9 ways in which this flick is a powerful argument for the free availability of safe and legal abortions out of 10
“You don’t look happy.”
- “When did I ever?” – We Need to Talk About Kevin