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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin is an eviscerating examination of nature versus nurture, an indictment of motherhood, maternal guilt, and the responsibility society places squarely on the shoulders of women for the outcome of our offspring. Director Lynne Ramsay, who adapted the script off the Lionel Shriver novel with Rory Kinnear, connects the viewer to the discombobulated state of mind of the film’s protagonist, Eva (Tilda Swinton, as good as she’s ever been here), by shuttling the audience back-and-forth between the present, where Eva is dealing relentlessly with the aftermath of her teenage son committing a horrendous act of violence; the distant past, before marriage and motherhood, when feminist, intellectual, Eva was a free-spirited world traveler; and the more recent past that encapsulates her life imprisoned in motherhood and her disconnection from her strange, almost other-worldly son.

And Kevin is a odd boy, from his beginnings as a baby who won’t stop crying, to the stony, baleful glare that is his hallmark from toddler-hood. Eva has no maternal connection to her child, but is it because there’s something wrong with her, or with him? She stares at her bloated, pregnant belly not with awe and wonder, but with fear and something approaching loathing, a palpable contradiction to what we women are trained from childhood to expect when we’re expecting. There is no spiritual glow, no aura of the radiant Madonna, enveloping Eva; only a sullen, barely contained anger and resentment that we later see mirrored in her son. Is Eva merely resentful of the lifestyle changes motherhood brings upon her? Suffering from a particularly wrenching and damaging form of post-partum depression? Just not wired with the necessary tools of empathy and self-sacrifice to give fully of herself to her son? Was Kevin by nature a bad seed, born wired to be a sociopath, or did his nurturing, or lack thereof, evolve a normal boy into a monster?

No matter how much Eva tries to tell her jovial, clueless husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) that there really is something the matter with Kevin, his own connection with his son seems so different that he cannot help but think there’s really something the matter with his wife. There’s a particularly devastating scene of Kevin’s infancy (also used to great effect in the film’s trailer) that shows baby Kevin relentlessly, angrily, crying, crying, crying. Eva rocks him, holds him, smiles fiercely at him, on the verge of breaking down in bitter tears herself. She pushes him in his pram as he wails incessantly; she stops near a construction site, blissfully allowing the white noise of the jackhammer to drown out, just for a moment, the searing cries of her son that are – to her and to those around her – a clear indictment of her utter inadequacy as a mother.

And there are many things about Eva’s interactions with her son that make it easy to lay the blame at her feet for just being awful at motherhood – until we see a redemption for her failings later as she mothers Kevin’s younger sister, Celia, a perfectly normal, sweet child with whom Eva is able to bond. Celia is light to Kevin’s darkness, and it’s easy to imagine, if you were Eva, that you might find yourself thinking how much easier the path of motherhood might have been if this easier child had been your first and only, if there had never been a Kevin to throw your life into such infernal turmoil.

As Kevin (played as a teen by Ezra Miller) grows, mother and son become oddly intertwined, disconnected at the core, but tied to each other in a devastating emotional bond as the mother tries desperately to connect with and understand her son, who seems to have been born watching the world with suspicious eyes, waiting for his chance to get back at it for his very birth. Meanwhile Kevin, as he grows, plays ever-more-sophisticated mind games, revealing his true self only to his mother, while putting on a face of normalcy for his father and the rest of the world. Control is at the center of their relationship, right from the start: Kevin refuses to speak, refuses to toilet train, deliberately soils himself just after Eva has cleaned him up; in a moment of impulsive violence, Eva herself commits a regrettable act that further shifts the power balance in the relationship in Kevin’s favor, when he lies to protect her, thus cementing that he is the one in control here. The more Eva tries to get others to see there really is something terribly wrong with Kevin, the more the blame falls on her for her perceived failings as a mother. Until, of course, it’s too late, when Kevin at last takes everything from Eva, leaving her isolated and alone to deal with the blame heaped upon her head for the sins of her son.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a devastating, wrenching film; there were times watching it when I ached for this boy whose mother could not love him, and times when I empathized deeply with Eva’s struggle to connect with son in spite of her obvious lack of natural affinity for mothering. Although thankfully my own emotional connection to my kids was never severed, I have been in that place of feeling hopelessly unable to give my child what she needed to ease her crying; I’ve dealt with the devastation of PPD so severe that you feel like you’re walking through wet cement to make it through each day; I’ve questioned my own choice to give up a thriving career in order to stay home and raise my children when they were small; I’ve struggled with learning to accept, rather than resent, the sacrifices that motherhood demands. Thankfully, my own maternal motor kicked in – but I credit largely practicing attachment parenting with my younger kids for allowing me to build those emotional bonds even through a particularly devastating bout of severe PPD following the births of my two youngest. There was always a side of me that could have swung the other way into maternal resentment and anger, but for me, the constant physical closeness of attachment parenting, the wearing of my babies constantly in a sling, the breastfeeding, the co-sleeping, inexorably created a bond between us that overcame the relentless pull of depression and resentment into which I could have easily fallen.

We live in a world where women, even highly intellectual, fiercely independent women entrenched in careers they love, are expected to magically, through the miracle of pregnancy, birth and motherhood, accept without challenge or question the holy mantle of motherhood, to gracefully morph into perfect mothers, even if all that entails goes against our very nature as individuals. Maternal instinct is supposed to be what we women are wired for by nature, but the truth is, not all women are; yet when a woman knows she doesn’t have it in her to be a mom, and chooses not to have kids at all, she will face relentless grilling from family, friends, co-workers, even strangers, telling her that she’s going to regret it if she doesn’t have a baby. And to those independent women who know motherhood is not for them and stick to it, I say: I salute you for acknowledging that motherhood is not your natural path, for fiercely retaining your right to an independent life, and further, I refer you to We Need to Talk About Kevin as Exhibit A if you need bolstering that you’ve made the right choice.

This is an excellently acted and directed film, in every respect. How rare it is to find a film that looks so honestly and unflinchingly at the side of motherhood the glossy parenting magazines would like to pretend doesn’t exist? Beyond that, though, Ramsay brings a feminine perspective to a question that haunts me, as I’m sure it must other mothers: What would it feel like to be the mother of a monster? How do the mothers of murderers overcome the guilt that must drive their every waking moment, knowing that they raised a child who took the life of another mother’s child? We Need to Talk About Kevin struck all the right emotional chords, nailed me to the floor with the unflinching honesty with which it reveals all the facets of this tragic tale.

Swinton, who also produced, is getting well-deserved Oscar buzz for her A-game acting here, but let’s not overlook in the awards discussion the remarkable direction by Ramsay, who skillfully weaves Eva’s story together and shows a skilled use of visual symbolism throughout, from the film’s opening scene of Eva participating in the La Tomatina festival in Spain, bathed in tomato juice as though being baptized in blood; to the screaming agony with which she pushes Kevin into the world, revealed only in a small delivery room mirror; to the jump cuts, bathed in red light from emergency vehicles, of the scene of Kevin’s great tragedy; to the painfully spare, tastefully decorated suburban home, practically devoid of life in all rooms except for Eva’s office, where her carefully pasted maps of the world were splattered all over with paint by Kevin the day she put them up. And, perhaps the most compelling visual symbol of the film, shown over and over: Eva relentlessly scrubbing and scraping off red paint splashed all over her post-tragedy house and car by vengeful neighbors.

Out, out, damned spot: Eva cannot cleanse herself of her sense of unending guilt, but she can accept that it is her place, as the mother of a murderer, to spend the rest of her life bathed in symbolic blood, and her afterlife, as she dully tells a pair of door-to-door Jesus salesmen, burning for eternity in hell. This is motherhood at its darkest, all guilt and blood and loss of self. Ramsay doesn’t paint a pretty picture here, but she does paint a compelling tale that you can’t tear yourself away from.

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One Response to “Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin”

  1. leahnz says:

    just had to say your review EXACTLY echoes my own feelings about the movie, kim. i imagine the (horrific) themes and fears explored in this movie must hit home particularly hard for parents, and perhaps most excruciatingly for mothers, like a punch in the solar plexus. (i was curious if lynne ramsay has children of her own but i couldn’t find much personal info, just in terms of where she’s coming from in terms of personal experience/perspective and how she approaches the material, fascinating)

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon