Over the last two nights I’ve watched ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’, which is one of the best films I’ve seen in a while. (A lot better than the absolutely terrible ‘In Time’ and disappointing ‘Oz: The Great and Powerful’ that I’ve also seen recently).
I knew it would be a hard watch, but I wasn’t prepared for the subtle and complex ways that the film looked at family dynamics and responsibility. It was brilliantly directed (Lynne Ramsay) and the acting was pretty perfect in my opinion (Ezra Miller, Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly)
Outwardly it appears to be a film about a mother whose son commits an atrocious and horrific crime, and who looks back at her life with him, from conception onwards, and tries to make sense of how it all ended up where it did. It was interesting as the viewer to feel so much sympathy for the mother who understands, in large part, that her ambivalence towards her son, from the moment he was born, her lack of maternal feelings towards him, is in some way responsible for the anger and violence he feels towards everyone.
Tilda Swinton talks eloquently about how as mothers we hope to bond with our children, and more often than not, do, but that there is always a kind of shadow that plagues you where you aware that it might not happen for some reason. And if it doesn’t, what then?
The relationship between Kevin and his mother is particularly hard to watch enfold, because on one hand, you can see that she does love him, even if she unable to direct that towards him in ways he obviously needs, but you can also see that he is fiercely intelligent and can see right through the facade she tries to adopt of ‘doting mother’ when that is obviously not how she feels. There are moments in the film when you can see that Kevin would like nothing more than that relationship, and moments where you feel hurt for him, but as he grows and has increasingly ‘dark’ impulses, it is also hard not to think of him as simply psychotic.
What is interesting in Ezra Miller’s portrayal though is that he has stated he deliberately tried not to play Kevin as ‘evil’ – which in itself makes Kevin more sinister. He is not insane and he is not even psychotic. As Swinton says, ‘What is so hard for his mother is not that she doesn’t understand his anger and violence, but that she does. Because it is hers.’
We can see the way he internalises her attitude towards him, and how he manipulates the relatinshiop between mother and father too, playing them all for the idiots he clearly thinks they are. What was so incredibly sad to me, aside from the horrific act of violence that ends up imprisoning Kevin, is that this film was essentially about a family who did not know how to function with one another in a healthy way.
Both the mother and father allow themselves to be swept up by a deceptive facade of pretending in one way or another that everything is okay with Kevin when it is clearly not. The father, played by John C. Reilly, has this kind of all-American, ‘everything is great and rosy attitude’, even though he can clearly see that it is not.
The mother allows Kevin to do one awful things after another without ever calling him on it, and yet even this is understandable within the complicated dynamic of their family – She knows her husband is unwilling to see Kevin as anything other than the son he deeply wants him to be, and also senses that her husband is trying to make up for her lack of maternal empathy by being this great, loving dad.
And she is also driven heavily by her guilt for not feeling the way she knows she should towards Kevin. What is hard to watch is how Kevin uses this guilt to silence his mother so that she ends up feeling unable to hold him responsible for his actions.
(One of the strongest scenes in the film is when the mother loses her temper at Kevin after he does something deliberately to upset her, and she accidentally ends up breaking her son’s arm. Rather than discuss this, she is only able to apologise for her actions in third person, ‘Mommy is so sorry for what happened’ and without asking him to cover up for her, Kevin decides not to tell anyone, making up a lie so that instead he can hold the incident over his mother’s head)
I couldn’t stop thinking about this family, and the way there was an obvious potential there for great love, but how it was thwarted by an inability to deal with the reality of who they were as people, and who they were with each other. It posed some interesting questions about how much responsibility we should have for each other. And it was an extraordinarily honest look at some of the challenges of motherhood and the darkest possible outcome for what can happen when something so essential and so primordial as a mother’s nurturing, demonstrative love, is lacking. And yet how that love, nevertheless present, is so completely and utterly inescapable, regardless of your child’s actions.
There is nothing that Tilda Swinton cannot turn her hand to, and I suspect the same goes for Ezra Miller who is captivating and insightful. And quite beautiful, too. Yet whereas Gus Van Sant’s ‘Elephant’ looked at the high-school tragedy from the inscrutable point of view of the two protagonists who commit the mass murder, this film shifts the focus to the mother, yet offers us, like her, no escape and no resolution from what has happened.