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.
John C. Reilly brings Franklin to life with blindness to Kevin’s descent as well as fatherly love. The performance is good, seemingly shallow, but illustrates Franklin’s detachment from the storm rising within his own home.
Few pop music selections add commentary to what is mostly a original minimalist soundtrack. A wheezy drone underlies many of the delirious flashbacks, while most of the scenes are punctured with the quiet spaces between word and noise.
Overall, the original music for the film provides a cloudy tone under which the performances must resonate. There is no driving thriller music meant to ratchet tension; We Need to Talk About Kevin doesn’t need this kind of score because there is enough tension between what is about to happen and what might happen. Music literal to the events would tip this tension into silliness, because on some level the viewer would understand the film has “gone Hollywood”.
There are a few spree murder films to which we can compare We Need to Talk About Kevin. Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Zero Day cover school shootings from different angles. Uwe Boll’s Rampage is a weak and mostly brainless entry into the genre (though the similarity between the killer’s costume and James E. Holmes‘ tactical gear is unsettling). Bellflower is an interesting film that takes many visual and narrative risks, but ultimately gives the killer more rational reasons for snapping. He’s a killer that makes sense in his world, he’s the killer we think we can understand. Yet none of these films deal with aftermath in such a comprehensive way as Eve Khatchadourian represents.
I don’t completely understand the treatment of Kevin’s gymnasium assault within We Need to Talk About Kevin, and this is a small mark against a film that gets so many things right. Kevin is rendered with the same soft even lighting of his home, shot in a reverential, almost religious way. Everything about the moment is staged and suggests the mythic.
I have no doubt this may have expressed what Kevin felt, but it also clashes with the nothingness Kevin expresses through the film. When Kevin leaves the building to surrender, the crowd sounds like they are cheering for him, cheers that shift into screams of hatred as he descends to be cuffed. This is a great moment on its own, but given the film’s allegiance to Eva’s point of view, it is out of place.
The post-attack scenes outside of school are frantic, shot handheld to look handheld and seemingly lit solely by flashes from first-responder vehicles. Kevin’s world appears absolutely peaceful in compairison. He’s wearing white, not clad in black like his more theatrically-minded ilk. There’s no sweat, his hair is perfect. He’s crafted the moment and perhaps it is his graduation into the mature aspect of whatever he thinks he is, but why do we it this as he sees it? We’ve not had that perspective anywhere else in the film.
While the film avoids any answers or pontification about where Kevin comes from, it offers insights into the problem which feel more authentic than any similar film. By refusing to draw sensical humanity around an inhuman action, it delivers an effective mediation of experience. Blame cannot be placed, but it also must be shared. Kevin rose apart and within the families and community around him, yet no one could see the potential threat. If they couldn’t counsel him out of it, than maybe they could anticipate and prevent the tragedy.
The film’s title might be the only answer it has to offer. Most people have little interest or patience to talk about the Kevins of the world, but that conversation is the only way to prevent them from assuming the role they are set to play. We do need to talk about Kevin without diagnosing him with the limiting simplicity of “evil”. Effective and honest films like We Need to Talk About Kevin should sustain this dialogue.