Given how much of my spare time I spend watching movies, it’s probably for the best that I very rarely hate films. Oh, sure, there’re plenty of movies that I find disappointing, uneven or simply boring, but generally I can find something to like. So it was with some surprise that I found myself overcome with my intense dislike for We Need to Talk About Kevin.
For those unfamiliar with the film – or Lionel Shriver’s book from which it was adapted – it concerns a mother (Eva Khatchadourian, as played by Swinton) and her complicated relationship with her son (the titular Kevin, played by Ezra Miller in his teen years) whose latent sociopathy is violent realised as a school massacre. It is a story about capital-G Guilt; a premise with abundant potential. Unfortunately, right from its opening frames, We Need to Talk About Kevin opts for trite obviousness.
How would you open a film about a mother coping with immense guilt? How about a flashback to her immersed in a sea of red, remembering (or dreaming about) her experiences at (presumably) Spain’s Tomato Festival, overlaid with dissonant sounds of suffering. In case the metaphorical significance of her wading through red liquid went over your head, we then cut to her awakening in a ramshackle house overlaid with a red filter that turns out to be diegetic; overnight, vandals have thrown red paint at her house. Do you get it? She’s literally stained with the blood of her son’s actions? Do you get it?
I can forgive the occasional overly obvious symbol. Subtlety can be overrated. But this mawkish approach is consistent with the film that follows, in which Lynne Ramsay’s visual talents are diminished by her relentless insistence on over-emphasising every emotional moment. When Eva dashes from her place of employment upon hearing news of the school massacre, the camera briefly lingers on the business name: Escape. When she applies for a job at a decidedly less ritzy travel agent – post-massacre – the camera focuses on the business’s crumpled and torn posters, exaggerating its shabbiness beyond any believability. When Kevin causes his younger sister to lose her eye, we’re treated to a close-up of him eating a lychee – get it? – complete with hyperbolic lip smacking and slurping. Any audience effort to unpack the meaning of each scene is sabotaged by the film’s insistence on showing and showing and showing you what it’s trying to say.
I could forgive this if We Need to Talk About Kevin succeeded a meaningful examination of its themes of guilt and accountability through the lens of motherhood. And there are moments where it grasps onto a thread of a compelling idea – such as when Eva finds solace from infant Kevin’s crying in a worksite beside a jackhammer, while her husband (John C. Reilly) belittles the difficulty of such challenges – but they’re fast abandoned as Kevin becomes something satanic. Those expecting a realistic portrait of a young sociopath will instead find a subhuman creature that manipulates everyone into loving him while directing devilish sneers at his mother (think the ‘gremlin on the bus’ episode of The Simpsons, except that the gremlin is a child with pitch-black hair).
Granted, it’s not fair to expect psychological realism from a film seemingly uninterested in such. It’s tempting to read the entirety of the film as occurring within Eva’s grief-stricken head, which is supported by the fractured temporality of the first act, as though her memories are shredded by her shattered psyche. Indeed, it’s hard to read some occurrences – such as when Eva is cornered in her house on Halloween by mocking trick-or-treaters – as taking place in anything adjacent to the real world.
But this reading provides no salve for my festering distaste. What purpose, then, does the extended, largely linear trek through Kevin’s upbringing achieve? It bears no resemblance to the real challenges of parenting, as most children – frustrating as they might be – are not literally the Devil. Even if we accept that these moments are deliberately exaggerated by Eva’s traumatized consciousness, there are no insights to be drawn here, particularly when Ramsay avoids the total descent into surrealistic grief that this approach would suggest. Instead, we get yet another scene of Eva washing her hands of blood, this time after Kevin’s killed the family guinea pig.
Equally, the scenes of Eva confronted by locals – who slap her, and break her eggs, and whisper hateful insults to her – make even less sense from this perspective. These confrontations are driven by an egregious misunderstanding of social behaviour; why would everyone blame Eva for her sons’ actions, particularly when she is as much a victim – perhaps more so – than anyone else? Combined with a baffling, off-hand suggestion that Eva’s opulent house was claimed in a court case, it suggests that screenwriter and protagonist alike are divorced from reality.
That disconnect from any larger social relevance is exacerbated by the circumstances of the climactic school shooting, in which Kevin shoots down his school peers with … a bow and arrow. Just as any substantial consideration of what motivates school shooters is smothered by the abject villainy of Kevin’s characterisation, any social relevance is extinguished by the inexplicable inability to incorporate firearms into the narrative (especially in the wake of recent events in America).
These litany of failures are particularly unfortunate, because Ramsay is a talented aesthete – rendering these facile symbols in antiseptic whites and vivid reds – and Swinton is perfect in the role of a woman irrevocably alienated from society. If I focus solely on these elements, I can spy a glimmer of the film that We Need to Talk About Kevin’s reputation promises. But pretty cinematography and formidable performances cannot account for a film anchored by visual simplicity and intellectual dishonesty.