One of the advantages cinema offers is the ability to depict the human motives of behaviors we might not otherwise understand. In the place of unruly reality, a dramatic narrative offers an ordered and safely-distant experience. For the most part, films work best when they are outside the viewers life experience, because cinema is mediated and presents meaning through symbol and style.
Doctors often laugh at medical scenes, soldiers mock films which don’t get military basics right, and survivors often complain about the “Hollywood” treatment of their tragedy. Film creates a reality that almost requires you have no real memory of it, otherwise, there will inevitably be a clash between what you know and what the filmmakers created.
Mass murder is thankfully outside most people’s real experience, but the fear of it seeps into everything. Culture has plenty of fascination with serial killers, but even they can be rationalized on some level. We know, through the many cinematic profilers, they have their own logic, and you don’t need to be FBI to think you know a few things about how they got to be the way they are.
Killing people indiscriminately is shocking because it makes no sense at all. There is little comfort in undersanding why someone goes on a killing spree, there are no motives that a sane person can understand. They are so beyond normal human thought that it easy to see spree killers as forces of evil beyond the cause and effect of human development.
We Need to Talk About Kevin digs into where this type of person comes from. In flashbacks cut with current time, the audience watches Kevin (Jasper Newell, Rock Duer) get sicker the older he gets. Yet unlike most stories of this type, Kevin does not suffer any kind of real abuse. Kevin was mis-wired from the start, and any attempt by Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) to fix or ease Kevin’s malice is only met with his derision and rejection.
Kevin sees doctors; Kevin is catered to, but every attempt to make him better only twists him further into a seething boil. His antagonism verges on the supernatural, and viewers may wonder if the film will shift into The Omen territory to explain the coldness he brings to every moment he lives. However, the movie offers no such cop-out, Kevin is what Kevin is, just because he was born that way. There is no explanation for the viewer because Eva never gets one either. Kevin himself, in a rare instant of humanity, reveals to Eva that even he “doesn’t know why.”
Kevin is brought to life with the talents of several actors, Rock Duer, Jasper Newell, and Ezra Miller. Under writer/director Lynne Ramsay’s deft direction they all inhabit Kevin with infuriating detail. The portrayal feels so real that watching it is a challenge in itself. I found myself saying “it’s only a movie” as if I was a kid cowering at some late-night horror show. Making Kevin a one-dimensional “evil” would’ve been easy in a film like this, but at no point does it lose track of its commitment to Kevin, Eva or Franklin (John C. Reilly). Domestic life, in its commonality, makes the abyss inside Kevin look even deeper and wider in contrast.
Tilda Swinton navigates the film’s nonlinear scenes with perfection. She shifts from suburban pride, total exhaustion and guilty pariah, and inabits each part fully. With the exception of the incessant intrusion of red, Eva, after the murders, inhabits a pale and ghostly world that she has little to offer. In contrast, the flashbacks are warmer, often romantic and welcoming. As troubling as her memories are, they still are closer to home than the post-spree life she lives.