We Need to Talk About Kevin doesn’t waste much time. From the start, we know that its title character is a murderer, moreover, that he’s responsible for a school massacre, something that’s become the new national nightmare. Its angle on the tragedy is one not often considered: The mother, who navigates through life in a permanent state of shock. It’s not so much that she didn’t expect what Kevin did to happen. On the contrary, she was suspicious of him as a toddler. What gets to her isn’t the decrepitude of her new home, the hopelessness of her new job, or even the open hostility of the neighborhood, but the knowledge that she was utterly powerless to stop the inevitable.
In truth, Eva (Tilda Swinton) is not a blameless woman. We Need to Talk About Kevin employs multiple timelines, and there isn’t one in which she seems to enjoy or particularly want the burden of motherhood. It’s hard to blame her, as Kevin (played as a teenager by Ezra Miller) is a colicky infant, an unresponsive child, and a frighteningly distant young man. He learns from an early age how to antagonize his mother, withholding all affectation from her but turning on the charm for his father (John C. Reilly), who charges to Kevin’s defense whenever Eva voices suspicion that something is wrong. It isn’t long before Eva is playing the same game as Kevin, leading to a game of one-upsmanship that turns tragic quickly, as Kevin takes to lashing out at his sister (Ashley Gerasimovich) when his parents aren’t around. Eva has reason to blame Kevin for the death of a pet and for his sister’s going blind, but she is without proof, and her husband is so happy in his obliviousness that he buys Kevin an archery set.
Knowing all of this up front is what makes We Need to Talk About Kevin so harrowing. That Kevin receives a toy archery set as a child and graduates to become a real marksman as a teenager is Alfred Hitchcock’s timebomb theory in action. The film becomes a gut-wrenching waiting game, a slow burning fire where every arrow fired, every awkward conversation, and every sidelong glance is added fuel. When the bomb goes off, as it must, the residual effect isn’t a temporary state of shock, but a melancholy that permeates the film’s every frame.
To twist the knife further, Kevin is left alive following his massacre, unlike the perpetrators of many such events. For all the school shootings that’ve been blamed on rock music and violent video games, for all the mass shooters that’ve left behind manifestos and diaries, here is a live killer, and there’s no real explanation for him, either. Does it go back to the moment when his mother breaks his arm? When she yells at him that she’d rather be in Paris than changing his diaper? That she views Kevin’s birth as a spoiler in her otherwise uncomplicated life? It’s clear what her neighbors think, but Lynne Ramsay‘s film understands that blame isn’t just too easy, but indicative of a culture that engenders the worst kind of violent outburst.
We Need to Talk About Kevin only allows one concession to typicality, that being the reaction of the people outside of Eva’s family. Their relentless attacks on her, some two years on, are shocking in their brutality. They view and treat her as something subhuman, and, despite knowing what Kevin ultimately put her through, abuse her as though she is at fault. But she’s the only one who saw Kevin for what he really was, the only person who said anything, the only one not surprised in the school parking lot. Roger Ebert points out that nobody beyond Eva talks about Kevin, positing that this is a function of the film’s point of view, its main character’s fractured psyche. But there’s nothing here particularly out of line with reports coming out of any shooting. How many neighbors say they suspected something? How many bystanders profess that the killer fits a certain profile? Smart kid, they say, quiet. To everybody but Eva, that’s the only profile Kevin fit.
A movie like this could very easily become exploitative, but Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Schriver’s novel refuses to take any narrative shortcuts, its use of a jumpy timeframe compensation for film’s relative inability to do the epistolary any justice. The film is anchored by Swinton’s performance, which is among her best. She plays a woman at several different points in a life that’s been unraveling for years and, in many ways, is the embodiment of suffering. Swinton’s challenge is to create an unlikable woman whose actions are understandable, but hard to sympathize with. She succeeds, leaving the character with only one channel of commiseration: Her son, locked up in jail.
This is a vital film, one that has continued to grow in stature since its release. It is one thing to peer into the abyss. It is another to return, battered, from the edge and report one’s findings. We Need to Talk About Kevin is unafraid to do both, and the result is unsettling. It argues that there is no root cause for tragedies of this scale, only people left behind to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives. Eva does so to the best of her ability. She brings to the table the same enthusiasm she had for motherhood. Given how that turned out, her attitude is understandable.
We Need to Talk About Kevin. Directed by Lynne Ramsay. With Tilda Swinton (Eva), Ezra Miller (Kevin), and John C. Reilly (Franklin). Released January 13, 2012, by Oscilloscope Pictures.