It’s hard to understand what might motivate someone to see a movie like “We Need to Talk About Kevin” — which feels both grotesque and gratuitous as it explores a mother’s life before and after her teenage son commits horrific acts of violence.
Perhaps parents believe the film holds important clues about what makes certain children troubled, and hope it’ll reveal ways to assure their own children never go down a dark path. They’ll be disappointed.
Kevin seems deeply disturbed from a very young age, supporting the notion that nature trumps nurture. Yet those who crafted Kevin’s story clearly think nurture has some skin in the game — because the film opens with Kevin’s mother Eva (Tilda Swinton) reveling in a street running red with tomato pulp.
It appears she’s taking part in Spain’s annual “La Tomatina” festival. It’s our first glimpse into Eva’s passion for travel, a love affair eclipsed by marriage and children. Once husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) insists they move from city to suburbs, Eva settles for covering the walls of her own little at-home hideaway with maps.
They’re an awfully odd couple, with differences that grow more stark over time. Franklin seems a fuddy duddy, content with everyday mediocrity, who either fails to see Kevin’s flaws or prefers to live in denial. Eva feels them profoundly, but tries repeatedly to break through Kevin’s stone cold solemnity.
Kevin (as a teen, Ezra Miller) is smart, and cunning. He knows just how to manipulate his parents, setting them against one another with ease and delight. Periodic displays of apparent affection for his younger sister Celia (Ashley Gerasimovid) can’t disguise his genuine disgust at having to compete for his parents’ attention.
So what’s a parent to do? Developmental issues, like being slow to talk and toilet train, are addressed by Kevin’s parents rather late in the game. But once Eva finally gets her son to a pediatrician, he assures her Kevin is perfectly normal. Franklin’s “that’s just what boys do approach” doesn’t help.
I get the feeling both “We Need to Talk About Kevin author (Lionel Shriver) and screenwriters (director Lynne Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear) want us to leave the film knowing or feeling something we hadn’t recognized before. But I can only guess what that might be.
Are frequent images of flags meant to signal violence seeping into American culture? Is Eva’s reference to Kevin being hopped up on Prozac an indictment of the pharmaceutial industry? Is Eva’s observation that Kevin commits his crimes as a minor meant to critique our juvenile justice system?
The setting often jumps between present and past — making it difficult to piece together any really helpful insights about why a child might be so mean, or a teen so moved to mayhem. Maybe it was all those child safety locks in a house where so many things become weapons. Maybe it was the eerie similarities between mother and son.
I’d have prefered a more linear telling of this tale. Instead, Ramsay delivers a collage of images, most awash in red — mixed with jarring sound and musical selections like “Nobody’s Child,” “In My Room,” and “Mothe’s’ Last Word to Her Son.” It’s creepy, and moves the film from a mix of maternal memoir and morality tale to horror movie.
Most disturbing is the film’s implication that those with signs of serious mental illness are simply evil — or ruined by refrigerator mothers. We should all know better in a day and age when advances in neuroscience are making clear the very real connections between brain and behavior.
Most heartening is its depiction of small acts of human kindness, which is the only part of this film I really expect or care to remember.
Note: “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is rated R with good reason. It contains adult language, sexual content and extreme violence.
Coming up: The fine art of sidewalk chalk, Thumbs up!