Film review: We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)
Warning, the review contains major spoilers!
Thought-provoking and disturbing, about a mother who doesn’t bond with her son easily. Excellent performances by Tilda Swinton (Eva), and Ezra Miller (Kevin). Tilda Swinton is very good at playing a vulnerable character, maybe that's why she was picked to play the mother.
Everything happens within Eva's tormented mind. We all take it for granted that our children will be wonderful and we'll love them completely. Her son Kevin is different. Does a son become "bad" because his mother doesn't love him? Or does she not love him because he's "bad" ? From Eva’s point-of-view, Kevin is hideous and malicious. As Cinematic Corner writes in her review: "There is a very prominent use of symbolic colors - Eva is constantly surrounded by red, symbolizing her guilt, which is always there with her."
The book has been hailed an anti-mother manifesto, about a mother not whole-heartedly wanting her child. Eva having little or no desire or talent for motherhood. This is more evident in the book, which is written in confessional letter form to Eva’s husband, as she searches for some kind of explanation. There can be few parents who have not felt that way, if only for a minute, about not wanting their child. Is Kevin intrinsically malevolent, as Eva believes, or has her flawed mothering itself created a monster? Is Kevin the victim of nature or nurture? Everyone bring their own experiences to the table who witness the story unfold.
Eva’s husband Franklin sees nothing wrong with Kevin and will not be enlightened. This could just have easily have been called: He Wouldn't Talk About Kevin. Or is Franklin's decision not to look deeper into Kevin's problems simply how Eva perceives her husband?
As they pointed out on Ryan McNeil’s Matineecast, there is nothing literary about the film, even though it’s an adaptation of the novel by Lionel Shriver. A lot of scenes are instead visually striking and inventive. Seeing things through her eyes rather than hearing a conversation. Show not tell. Possibly Eva has a postpartum depression, and maybe this affects her duties as a mother. Another good observation from the podcast is that Eva is constantly taunted in the community where she lives, they are angry with her for what Kevin has done, and you could ask yourself, why doesn’t she move? Probably it’s because she wants to be close to Kevin, and not turn her back on him. Her struggle at home has now been taken outside.
I couldn’t help comparing the story with the film Boy A (2007), which had similar themes, based on a real life story about guilt, and how the world reacted to the boy’s apparent evilness. Plus going back to the question of why did he do it? What is so comparable is that both films show hardly any blood, it’s the emotions of the violence that are so striking.
In Tilda Swinton’s own words from 2012 Charlie Rose interview:
"About what it's like to be that mother, and what it’s like to be inside a mother’s mind (…) It’s really a nightmare, about having a baby, and not really wanting to have that baby. Not having a link with a baby that we can expect to be natural. A real war between the boy and his mother, and a nightmare of having to live with that for the rest of her life. (…) All the parents who see it think, I thought he was bad my kid (…) and the people who don’t have kids may want to leave it for a few more years."
Charlie Rose: Is she guilty?
Tilda Swinton: "As far as she is concerned, she is guilty. I think the thing that’s really scary about her scenario is, she is not sitting opposite a child thinking, I don’t understand that child, that’s really an exotic foreign being. All his violence, all his badness, is hers, and comes out of her, they look very alike"
Charlie Rose: Is she responsible for his violence?
Tilda Swinton: "We are not even tempted to come up with an answer, there is no answer. But what we are showing you is her memory, her fantasy, her nightmare, and who knows if any of it is true”
Charlie Rose: How informed were you of already being a mother?
Tilda Swinton: "Well honestly I think I would have wanted to make the film anyway, if I wasn’t a mother.”
Charlie Rose: And could have made it just as well is the question?
Tilda Swinton: “One thing of being a mother cleared up for me, is that I am in the very fortunate position of having children that I was ready for.”
Charlie Rose: This movie, is also about evil, isn’t it?
Tilda Swinton: “Well I don’t know, it’s certainly about a conversation about evil. It’s about lack of empathy, there are interesting and important psychiatrists who know much more about this than I do, who talk about the need not to talk about evil, the lack of something instead of the positive presence of something. Personally I don’t think talking about evil is useful at all, it’s always a way of pushing it away from us, that’s evil.” (…) Demonizing someone because they don’t believe what you believe, or because they come from another country is not useful”
Tilda Swinton: “A kind of atmosphere of discomfort, someone (Eva) on a knife-edge of not quite knowing what they feel about their circumstances. (…) It’s uncomfortable for the audience, but I think worth it”
Tilda Swinton interview with Roger Ebert:
"A woman who has no one to share her feelings with, except the audience. If we are going to be empathetic towards the mother character, we are going to have to stretch ourselves. The mother could be described as quite dismantled, prematurely aged, exhausted, persecuted, alienated, and a solitary woman (…) She is not really present. Her present carries around all these fantasies. Her dialogue is with her past, it’s not with anybody present in reality. Her dialogue is with herself. There are no answers for the audience, and no answers for her, so it’s this endless loop really.”
Tilda Swinton: “She is constantly diverted from the attention her baby needs, and that can be seen as a crime of enormous scale (…) The boy grows up to be a misanthropic, alienated, vicious individual. She recognizes his alienation and toughness as hers, and that’s a worse kind of claustrophobia than a child that she simply couldn’t connect with. (…) One of the things the film addresses is this thing that all parents know, that is that none of us know what we’re doing."
Tilda Swinton: (major spoiler) "There is a very important line in the book, which we shot at one point, and we didn’t put in the final edit, when she asks him in the prison, why didn’t you kill me too? And he says, when you’re putting on a show, you don’t shoot the audience. He wants her attention, and he does get it”
Tilda Swinton on the title:
"The title of the film kind of says it all, we need to talk, we don’t necessarily need to come up with any answers, but we just need to talk about what this film’s about."
Lionel Shriver, the author of the novel, was asked about the taboo questions in interview on Salon.com:
Did you interview or talk to mothers who have actually regretted having children?
Lionel Shriver: “I only talked to a couple of people who actually admitted it"
They actually said, I wish I never had children?
Lionel Shriver: “No one ever puts it in terms of wishing the presence of their child away. But perhaps they are still attached to the version of their future — one in which they never had kids — that they never got to experience. By and large, there’s a big taboo against saying that, even when couched in very careful terms. (…) You would have to find someone who had such a dreadful experience of parenthood that they severed the relationship with their child, that it was in a state of total collapse.”
Because that’s the only way a mother would admit that?
Lionel Shriver: “That’s the only way anybody’s going to go on the Web about it. Otherwise it’s too hurtful.”
(Major spoiler) Which came first, the idea to write about a school shooting or the desire to write about your anxieties? Because I’m wondering why you made it so extreme — a mother’s worst nightmare.
Lionel Shriver: "It was a confluence of forces. It had to do with the fact that I was getting older. I was running out of time to have any kids, so I really had to start getting practical instead of theoretical about it. At the same time, this was when all of these shootings were taking place — 1998 and 1999 especially. There was a real hot and heavy period, and I had a strong reaction to them."
Do you actually believe that there are people born — I don’t want to say “evil” — let’s say, bad.
Lionel Shriver: "Well, if you look at history you can tell that something goes wrong with people. I guess the debate is at what point. I would conceive of evil more as an absence of something rather than a presence. People are born with greater and lesser capacities for all kinds of things — great art, intellectual achievement, and also things like empathy, interest, compassion. So, yes, I think it is possible that some people are born not very interested in things and don’t really take on board the reality of other people or their feelings. (…) But I admire parents able to keep giving some kind of sustenance in spite of everything. That is something that our culture expects. And I think that’s one of the burdens of parenthood: Oh my god, my kid can do anything — including not just doing things to other people, but doing things to you - and I’m expected to stay in there with them. (…) But, yes, Eva is partly at fault. And she’s supposed to recognize that. She did help to create a monster."
Lionel Shriver: “I don’t like calling Kevin evil, I think that’s another obscuring term. I don’t know what anyone is saying when they say someone is evil, aside from, I don’t understand them, they are different from me. It’s almost a refusal to get in their heads, rather than really understanding them from the inside. (…) You can’t really pin that much on him (before he is 15), it's Eva’s storytelling as much as anything that makes many of the things that the boy does seem nefarious (…) If you took that to a psychiatrist, the psychiatrist would probably have the mother in before the kid.”
Lionel Shriver: "Celia is to Eva too easy a child, she is too lovable, she’s soft, she’s needy, she’s incredibly sweet, she doesn’t make any demands on her parents, she’s obedient, she’s a sap, I have a soft spot for her, but Eva likes the challenge of Kevin. Ultimately, I think she recognizes herself more in Kevin. Kevin is difficult, he is very bright, he’s brittle, he’s hard to get at, judgmental, he thinks he’s better than everyone else, and so does she.”
Lionel Shriver: (Major spoiler)“I wanted to remove the gun control argument, for several reasons. I did not want this novel to be on why Americans need better gun control, I was interested in more existential issues. I also thought that Kevin himself would be more interested in the existential issues. He was specifically motivated to make his act of violence as perfectly meaningless as possible, it is an act of pure nihilism. He especially wanted to deny his mother any easy aphoristic interpretation of the event. So Kevin himself, like the author, removed the gun control argument from the equation."
So what did I make of the movie? Sticks in my mind, and was tough to look away. You don't want to look, but you can't seem to stop. The build-up was very well done, luckily I didn’t read anything about story beforehand. Although I think the pay-off and overall darkness means "We Need To Talk About Kevin" is not a film I’d rewatch a lot.
Eva is on to Kevin, but can never quite get to the bottom of such malice. (Major spoiler) At the end, maybe Eva goes back to the jail to see him, because she’s alone, and because hating doesn’t usually make you happy. Kevin ruined her life, and she doesn’t have to forgive him. To me it’s better to hold your head up high, and face your problems, than hide from them. If Kevin still hates her in jail, then at least Eva tried.
You get what you give in life. For me it was not Eva’s fault in the movie, she tried to make it work, even if she didn't want the child. Her kindness towards Kevin could be perceived as superficial, which would be a reason to blame herself for how he turned out.
Perhaps Eva's best was not good enough and her son should have been put in an institution? I'm glad I'm not in Eva's shoes, her task was extremely difficult to cope with.
Perhaps, as Cinematic Corner wrote in her review, Eva chose to stay "because she felt in some way responsible. It is an impossible situation - to determine what the parent is responsible for, especially when it comes to disturbed, manipulative children. (...) Also there is quite a lot which is only hinted at and not shown, which forces us to imagine the awful things Kevin did."
Film critic Roger Ebert emphasized in his review the house being an indicator of the family dynamic: "how can four people occupy a home for over a decade and not accumulate anything? The shelves and tabletops are as barren as those in a display home. What kind of a kitchen has empty counters? These people live there, but they've never moved in."
We Need To Talk About Kevin poses interesting questions, is evil passed on through generations? Can children get away with anything, and still be loved? We have all been kids, and can relate. The film does not provide easy answers, partly due to the unreliable narrator, and touches on issues that many of us prefer not to think about.
Easily made my top 10 films of 2011, a scandal the film did not receive any Oscar nominations. We Need To Talk About Kevin might be the scariest film in modern times that isn't from the classic horror or shock-horror genre.
A film that lends itself to reviewing and discussion. For me, was heartbreaking to watch, impossible to forget. I recommend the film. Almost certain to increase the book sales of the novel, which I'm intending to seek out.
My rating is 8.2/10
Readers, was my review useful? Any thoughts on We Need To Talk About Kevin? Have you read the book? Seen the film?
Tilda Swinton video interview with Roger Ebert
Tilda Swinton interview, Charlie Rose 2012
BBC podcast, author answers questions, We Need To Talk About Kevin
Author Interview, We Need To Talk About Kevin
Film review, Roger Ebert
Film review, Cinematic Corner
A rotten bond: Lionel Shriver has written a disturbing novel about a mother-son relationship / Benedicte Page / The Bookseller 5151 (Oct. 22, 2004): p25
Malice aforethought / Deborah Ross / Spectator. 317.9556 (Oct. 22, 2011): p58