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."


BBC podcast:

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

Matineecast, podcast

Film review, Roger Ebert

Film review, Cinematic Corner

goodreads

librarything

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

20 comments:

  1. Yet another fantastic, all-encompassing write up of a fantastic film. I've spent nearly an hour reading this review and checking out all the links you posted. Really great stuff man.

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    1. @Alex Withrow: Thanks! researching, when is it enough, you can go on and on ( : Because there is so much to write about, I think I pushed this one more so than other reviews. I need to talk about Kevin!!! ( :
      The middle section of the review sums up most of the links.

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  2. This writeup is absolutely amazing. All those interviews! Thank you for leading me to your blog bycommenting on mine. I'll revisit it, that's for sure.

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    1. @Jessica: Thanks for reading, I did spend quite a bit of time doing research, so it's nice to know other bloggers find it interesting too.

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  3. I agree with everyone above - a great review! nice work. I found those interviews very compelling. Even Gripping!
    I agree entirely that this deserved Oscar nominations. Tilda Swinton, Lynne Ramsay and Rory Kinnear especially. (give noms to The Help instead? Please!)
    My one issue with this film is the relationship between the husband and wife. 60 years ago I might have believed a husband can be that unaware about his wife's obvious pain, but not in this day and not in the time the film is set. This man ignores his wife's pain for decades, and I found that a weak point in the narrative.
    But other than that, I agree that it is a very interesting Film. Fascinating that Lional Shriver says (openly) Eva is partly to blame. That was extremely interesting.

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    1. @Lisa: Yes, those interviews were revealing and helpful in better understanding the thought-process behind the writing of the book, and the making of the film. I also found them gripping.
      The John C. Reilly character Franklin does behave in an unusual manner and maybe it’s unrealistic to be so blind to suffering(or ignore his wife's pain as you put it). Perhaps he is aware of what’s going on, and just doesn’t know how to deal with his wife’s and son’s difficulties? If he is in denial about Kevin’s problems, then I suppose could be in denial about his wife's troubles too.

      We see everything from the point-of-view of Eva's clouded memory, so perhaps the husband ignoring her pain was what consumed Eva's thoughts later on, and Franklin's positive qualities have been forgotten. This is presuming Eva's focuses on only negative experiences from that period, which could be the case if she was, and maybe still is depressed.
      Franklin reminded me of the mother character in Ordinary People (1980), in that Mary Tyler Moore was facing big problems, but wanted to preserve an illusion of perfection. As opposed to We Need To Talk About Kevin, Ordinary People contains a powerful wife - husband confrontation scene. Great comment, got me thinking ( :

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  4. Also one of my favourites, if not my favourite film of 2011. Thanks for sharing all the interviews. Absolutely fascinating! Think I might have to give the book a go. Also going to have to look into this Boy A too!

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    1. @Pete: Glad you enjoyed the review! Boy A (2007) I would definitely recommend, garnered good reviews I recall, it’s a UK production, and probably features Andrew Garfield’s finest performance. Stays with you in a similar way that We Need To Talk About Kevin does.
      Myself, I’m going to track down Morvern Callar (2002), the last film Lynne Ramsay directed.

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  5. Whoa thanks for sharing those interviews, Chris. I was a bit confused on deciding whose fault. I guess the mother didn't want to have him in the first place and she blamed him for it, but although she tried to work it with him, he probably already 'planted' the evil seed. I guess it's true that the kid should've gone to psychiatrist or something, maintaining the child pretty much what the parents fail to do. Great write-up!

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    1. @Andina: Thanks for weighing in. I don't think you can say whose fault it is.
      Yes, we have to give Eva credit, she tried, even if the baby was a mistake. But the parents were too hesitant, thinking the problems would go away.
      I agree a psychiatrist was needed, for the boy, and also for Eva's and Franklin's sake, so they had a fresh approach how to move forward. What they were doing at home wasn't working!

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  6. Great review and thank for the link. These are great interviews by the way, some things here I didn't even realize. I really liked the movie, it reminded me a lot of David Lynch's films. The cinematography was truly gorgeous.

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    1. @Sati: Thanks for the compliment! Your insightful reviews are a go-to source ( :
      The film does leave us with unanswered questions, which is why I could write so much for my review.
      There are no simple explanations of the behaviour of the family, like life I guess.
      I saw you wrote cinematography was similar to Inland Empire in your piece, I'll look more closely when I rewatch "Kevin".

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  7. You make it a little difficult for me to comment on this post given that I haven't seen this film and I don't want you to spoil it for me. :P
    I can't wait to read what you have to say though as all of your posts seem so well informed. I can tell, not just by the length of your article, but also because you always reference back to some well-known critics, which is something not many others do.

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    1. @niels85: Well, I wouldn't recommend reading my review before you have watched the film, there are spoilers as I warned about. Thanks for stopping by anyway! Will look out for your review on this amazing film. I like using sources, so the blog is not all about me, me, me, the whole time ( :

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  8. Wow, you did an amazing job with all those interviews! I haven't seen the film but I have a few co-workers of mine at Dish tell me all abut it. Your review made me want to see it that much more. I don't know what I would do if I were Eva. I should be getting this DVD in the mail soon; I ordered it off Blockbuster @Home. I will be back to tell you what I think. Also I heard about the book, the book seems to describe Kevin more like how he carefully selected how to get his victims alone!

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    1. @Anonymous: Thanks, let me know what you think

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  9. I loved your review, Chris -- you discussed so many thought-provoking questions. You also did a great job with these interviews, though I skipped the Lionel Shriver interview. I'll be back after I'm done with the novel. I want to finish it and have a chance to draw my own conclusions before I read what the author had to say about it.

    I have also been comparing Boy A and We Need to Talk About Kevin. Coincidentally I saw both movies and read both novels at around the same time. Even though the two stories are very different, they touch on some similar questions. And they both disturbed the hell out of me. ;-)

    I have a lot of thoughts about this, and your post has got me thinking even more. :-) I'll save it for my review of the novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. I hope I'll be getting to that soon. Again, excellent, thought-provoking review! Thanks for leaving me a link to it.

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    1. @Stephanie Ward: Thanks for the kind words! I actually have the book on my shelf, and plan to give it a read eventually. I wouldn't usually read the novel if I knew the plot so well already, but what I'm hearing is the story is very different from the film, and of course thought-provoking goes without saying.

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  10. Awesome review, keep sharing with us.....

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    1. @Ayush Chandra: Thanks! is time-consuming, so I only write full reviews occasionally.

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