If only they had talked about Kevin! This irritating film is all dressed up in arthouse gear, with somewhere interesting to go. Problem is, it just doesn’t go there!
The opening scenes are impressive. A heaving mass of revellers at a tomato festival in Spain (probably) squelches and slops around bareskinned in a shallow sea of red pulp (symbolic prefigurement: something bloody this way comes!). In their midst is Eva (Tilda Swinton), who comes in for some special treatment as she’s passed around on high, borne on the hands of the crowd. Tilda doesn’t do happy all that well, but she seems to be enjoying herself here in an alien-lands-among-friendly-natives kinda way.
Move forward to an older, worn and grim-looking Eva living in a humble suburban weatherboard bungalow with red paint splashed over its facade and front door. The random work of vandals, or something vindictive, a payback? Uh-oh. There’s red paint all over her car, too. My money’s on payback. For what?
Well, the title of the film gives it away, dunnit? Even though we haven’t been introduced to him yet, we know young Kevin’s misbehaved in a pretty major way – how, where and when is the carrot dangled in front of our noses for the rest of the movie. The most interesting part – the why – is barely touched upon.
In between repeated dream-like revisitations of the red pulp splattered tomato festival and Eva incessantly scrubbing and sanding at the unseemly red paint stains on her house, we are fed time-shuffled jigsaw pieces of information, which for the sake of clarity and brevity I’ll reassemble in linear order.
Formerly free-spirited adventurer and successful travel writer Eva has succumbed to marriage and motherhood, and she seems less than enraptured with her lot. Little wonder. No more bright city lights and professional writer trappings for her. She’s living in the burbs with caring but dull hubby Franklin (John C Reilly). Her first-born, Kevin, is a ‘difficult’ baby, bawling incessantly and driving her to distraction. But she ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
As a toddler, Kevin resists toilet training, fixing mummy with a baleful stare while wilfully and spitefully soiling his just-changed nappy. When Eva tries to engage him in simple game-playing, he stares back malevolently, refusing to respond. Way past talking age he won’t utter a word, despite his parents’ diligent coaxing. Eva wonders whether they’re dealing with autism, but Kevin puts that to rest with a demonstration of normal, if not charming, kiddie behaviour during a visit to a pediatrician. Silly mummy, making a fuss over nothing! Kevin gloats, as if he’s planned to make a fool of her from the outset, expertly manipulating the adult world according to his design. It’s as if he’s drawing on an evil adult intelligence, which would be acceptable if this was a movie about demonic possession like The Omen. But We Need To Talk About Kevin has higher pretensions as realist drama, and as such, portaying a child thus is absurd.
Even more so are the parents’ responses to the little shit’s ever-worsening behaviour as he grows up. Eva continues to try to mother Kevin as if he’s a normal kid, yet gives credibility to his cruel mind-games by entering a battle of wills with him, nurturing rather than short-circuiting their adversarial relationship. Stupid Franklin can’t see that there’s anything perturbing about Kevin, preferring to continue to attribute Eva’s privately expressed concerns to motherly hysteria and paranoia. Even when as an adolescent Kevin plays a part in his sweet younger sister Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich) losing an eye and shows no remorse, neither parent expresses outrage. He’s mildly censured and that’s it. WTF? What the screaming goddam FUCK? It’s maddening to watch.
Look, I’m the first to rant on about the sins of the good Dr Spock, and the dumb, molly-coddling, ego-stoking, responsibility-revoking, narcissism-invoking parenting he begat. But is the thesis here really that sparing the rod (metaphorically) makes Kevin a raging psychopath? Cos if so, that’s even dumber than the Spock parenting generations at their PC dumbest! And if that’s not the thesis, then we’re left with…drum roll…DEVIL SPAWN! That is, psychopaths like Kevin are born that way, bad seed, wired wrong. Either way, We Need To Talk About Kevin is not much of a contribution to the nurture vs nature debate!
There is no attempt to investigate Kevin’s inner workings. He’s a psycho at birth, adolescence, and on, and that’s that. In the end, his fate, and the fact that a violent anti-social act determines it, is entirely predictable.
Those enamoured of this movie (just about every critic on the planet going by Rotten Tomatoes) would counter that Eva, not Kevin, is the focus. And yes, it’s true that this is her story – an unremittingly bleak, miserable and pointless one. She is spurned by the townfolk, scapegoated for her monstrous son’s crimes, doomed like Sisyphus to an endless labour – in her case rubbing at the red stain on the walls of her house – and left to a life of wondering why. The Big Question comes a bit late for her, Kevin and the movie!
The story might have worked better without the convoluted and self-consciously ‘sophisticated’ non-linear narrative structure, which detracts from the dramatic impact of the climax. On the other hand, chronologically shuffling the narrative adds interest to an otherwise rather threadbare storyline.
Dodgy structural enhancements aside, I felt nothing for any of the characters. Tilda Swinton drifts through the movie like a ghost, and John C. Reilly has nowhere to go in his role as the well-intentioned but dopey and unseeing husband. Ezra Miller is pretty chilling as the adolescent Kevin, and for mine is the standout performance (blasphemy when Tilda is in da house, I know – stone me gently).
The movie is adapted from a novel by Lionel Shriver. My default inclination would be to attribute its shortcomings to the generic transformation process. Literature and film are often false friends. However, Shriver was ecstatic in her assessment of the adaptation in this interview. As are most of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes. So, the ayes have it. But for me, this was just so much pseudo-poetic puffery built around an unacceptably simplistic thesis.
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