Despite being an avowed Tilda Swinton fan, I was wary about watching We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), because I’d assumed from the serious subject matter that it would be a rather dreary and depressing experience. As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Director Lynne Ramsay’s artful eye brings so much life and energy to the screen, and the script is packed with moments of dark, twisted comedy, greatly enhanced by Swinton’s critically-acclaimed and totally committed performance. In fact, I was laughing so much, I didn’t even realise how unsettled I’d been by the eponymous character’s behaviour until I tried to get to sleep that night, and found images from the film coming back to haunt me. Now that’s value for money! Despite it’s occasional flaws, this was a fascinating, mesmerising film, and one that I’m sure will stick with me for years to come. Shudder.
Having watched several straight-up horror flicks about demonic children in the past, it was interesting to note how much scarier it is when there’s no pat supernatural explanation for the child’s behaviour. It’s easier to shrug off something like The Exorcist or The Omen, because the chances of you bumping into an antichrist on the street are pretty remote… but Kevin isn’t possessed, and he isn’t the spawn of Satan, and he doesn’t have any magical powers or hellhounds to aid him… he’s just a murderous misanthrope with a longbow and some bike locks. He could, theoretically, be living next door to any of us… and he could strike at any time. It’s the mundanity of his evil that makes it so terrifying to me. I also found it interesting that the writer chose a bow and arrow as Kevin’s weapon of choice… I think that helps to make it a more universal story, because here in Britland it’s extremely unlikely that a kid his age would have access to a handgun, but I can remember taking archery classes at the local youth centre when I was young. I imagine it’s considered a fairly innocent pastime by most people, in most countries… which makes his father’s encouragement, and his mother’s blind-eye, far more plausible.
Speaking of “blind-eyes”, I liked the way the non-linear story structure helped to heighten the tension… for example, when we first meet Kevin’s adorable little sister ‘Celia’ (played by Ashley Gerasimovich), she’s cheerfully sporting an unexplained eye-patch, so we’re left to wonder if she was born with a disability, or if she acquired it later in life. Then when Kevin moves from rubber-sucker-tipped arrows to the real thing, you start to clench in anticipation of the moment when he “accidentally” pulls a King Harold II on the poor girl. As it turns out, the injury happens off-screen, and has nothing to do with arrows at all… but still, it was an very effective red herring. Despite the implication that Kevin may have been responsible for Celia’s disfigurement, it’s left fairly ambiguous, so I was still totally shocked when I saw that he’d actually killed her along with his father. Up until that late reveal, I’d been clinging to the hope that she’d been taken away by Child Services or something… that she was happily gambolling around on a farm somewhere, along with her missing pet hamster. But, no… she was gambolling with the angels instead. Sniffle.
Kevin’s father, ‘Franklin’, on the other hand, I couldn’t have cared less about… to steal a line from another John C. Reilly movie, the guy had it coming. I remember back in uni, I was eating lunch in the cafeteria one day when a sociology student came around with a questionnaire about juvenile delinquents. I can’t recall the exact questions I was asked about antisocial behaviour and its potential causes, but (given multiple choices) I blamed the parents every time. Although we’re really only seeing the story through the eyes of the mother, ‘Eva’ – who’s probably not the most reliable of observers – it’s likely that Franklin was overcompensating for his wife’s antipathy by indulging his son to a deadly degree. Aside from the scene where Eva lashes out and throws Kevin against a wall (which I’m certainly not advocating), I can’t recall any instances of either of them actually punishing or disciplining the brazen little brat… certainly not in the sort of structured and consistent manner he required. Didn’t they have a “naughty-step” in their house? Nah, just let him eat more sugar… I’m sure he’ll grow out of it. Tch! Presumably that’s why Eva chooses to martyr herself by staying in the same town where random parents can just walk up and slap her in the street with total impunity. She certainly didn’t stay for the sake of her work or her social life, anyway…
Although it’s a little unclear where Kevin is being held prisoner, it’s presumably close enough for her to visit regularly, and get to know the guards on a first-name basis. Clearly the relationship between Eva and Kevin is the core of the story, and full credit has to go to the look-a-like actors (Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell and Rocky Duer) who play the role at various stages in his development, and help to breathe life into this beautiful/abhorrent monster… as well as to Miss Swinton, of course. The final scene between the mother and her soon-to-be-adult son is particularly moving, although the implications of his admission are open to debate. Has Kevin finally realised the futility of his hatred? Is he capable of remorse? Redemption? Or is he simply feeling sorry for himself again? Is it another passing phase, or a genuine sign of growth? Find out in the forthcoming sequel, We Still Need to Talk About Kevin!
Oh, and I should really give a shout-out to Siobhan Fallon Hogan, who plays Eva’s amusingly apathetic new boss. It’s a small part, but a memorable one!
[Note: The post’s title is a reference to an old song by Carter USM, which someone has kindly put up on YouTube]