Friday, March 9, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

High school shootings are such a part of life and death in America that they’ve birthed a whole genre of movies. That genre even has its own spinoff: stories, like April Showers, The Life Before Her Eyes, and now We Need to Talk About Kevin, that are about people coping with the emotional wreckage caused by a school massacre.

I go to these movies reluctantly, and only if I think they’ll contain something that makes all that vicarious suffering pay off. I’m hoping for a plausible theory about what might motivate such an act, either on a societal level (Bowling for Columbine) or a personal one (Heathers), or a poetic contemplation of the impossibility of ever really knowing what can make someone do such a thing (Elephant).

But what do we get for enduring the pain marathon that is We Need to Talk About Kevin? With Tilda Swinton starring as an emotionally devastated mother picking her way gingerly through what’s left of her life after her son opens fire at his high school, and Lynn Ramsay (Morvern Caller, Ratcatcher) at the helm, We Need to Talk About Kevin is an emotional crucible.

It works powerfully on a purely empathetic level, pulling us deep into the traumatized perspective of Swinton’s Eva Khatchadourian. But is this film as punishment, an experience we endure in payment for the sin of being part of the society that spawned this particular hell? Or is there some enlightenment or insight to be found here?

Ramsay immerses us in bloody red from the start, as a carefree young Eva falls backward into a river of juice that’s being stomped out of grapes at a crowded Italian festival. The crucifixion pose Eva assumes as she body-surfs above the crowd may be a harbinger of the ordeal that lies ahead for her, but what radiates from Swinton is a sunbaked, carpe-diem ecstasy that makes her stiff, self-contained misery all the more poignant as we cut to the middle-aged Eva. Like a latter-day Lady MacBeth, this dowdy-looking Eva is forever trying to scrape off the red paint someone has sprayed on her car and the wall of the cruddy little house where she hides from the world.

The film toggles back and forth between the present, in which she lives as a pariah in the town where the tragedy happened, and the events that led up to and immediately followed the shootings. Eva finds her son Kevin (Jasper Newell as a young boy and Ezra Miller as a teenager) disturbingly unreachable from infancy, unable to connect with other people and contemptuous of their feelings, which he becomes increasingly adept at manipulating as he gets older.

His biggest dupe is his dad (John C. Reilly in cheerily clueless human teddy-bear mode), who is convinced that Kevin is just fine and Eva is the one with a problem. Their arguments over the boy drive a wedge between the two, isolating Eva even within her own family. (She has a daughter too, who’s much younger than Kevin, but the girl barely features in the story, and then only as a foil for her brother.)

We never see Kevin except at home or outside with his mother, so we can’t know how he interacts with other people, let alone what he’s thinking. Instead, we are shown Eva’s frustration and helplessness, over and over, often in lingering shots of her and her son sitting side by side or across a table from one another but clearly in separate worlds, as they stare past each other into space.

Swinton’s taut, translucent face plays minute variations on frustration, exhaustion, rage, and grief in her scenes with Kevin, and on hollowed-out shock and chagrin in the present-day scenes. Magnified by the often bloody color palette and the coldly empty-looking rooms she moves through, her magnetic performance may be reason enough to see the film.

But the lack of context leaves Swinton as marooned within this film as Eva is within her family and town, making what might have been a majestic modern tragedy skate uncomfortably close to the edge of emotional porn.

Written for TimeOff


  1. I do appreciate your review on We Need to Talk to Kevin. I didn't even know there was a book out, did you? I haven't read it but I did order the DVD on Blockbuster @Home and I should be getting it in the mail soon in Blu-ray. A lot of my co-workers at Dish told me this movie is disturbing but worth a watch. I honestly don't know what I would do if I were Eva.

  2. Hi, Sorry to be so late in responding to this comment, which I've thought about a lot since reading it -- I've been in a kind of crazy-busy place lately and neglecting this blog.

    I did know there was a book. Sylvia Savadjian, a fellow movie-head (and, for me, fellow Armenian-American) with whom I emailed with about it a bit said the book is very different from the movie, not so exclusively focused on Kevin and with a lot of very interesting stuff about being an artist and a woman and mother-daughter relationships and even being Armenian. So I definitely plan to read it when I get the time.