We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
A middle-aged woman (played by Tilda Swinton) struggles with the aftermaths of an unknown but ostensibly horrific crime committed by her teenage son, who is now in jail. She is being harassed by her neighbours and struggles to get a job while she privately tries to come to terms with her fate. In a series of flashbacks we learn about her past, with a loving husband and a young son who seemed different from day one; unable to show or accept affection, purposeless ever since he was a toddler, and with a serious spite towards anyone who tried to come near him and especially his mother.
Watching Let's Talk About Kevin in the wake of last summer's tragedy in my native Norway (in which a young gunman shot and killed 69 people in a political youth camp) brings up a lot of questions and parallels. Where do evil actions stem from? Are some people born with the urge to kill and destruct, without empathy or consideration? Or is this something borne out of bad upbringing and circumstances? The stirring proposition in Let's Talk About Kevin is that his parents who are perfectly average middle-class people are basically defenseless to their young son's malignant antics. He has no lust for life and no eagerness to learn, explore and develop which is arguably what drives most children. He does things to evoke negative reactions, almost as if to demonstrate his carelessness. This is just about as close you can get to portraying evil without bringing in religion or superstition (which movies portraying evil normally do). On the one hand, this makes Let's Talk About Kevin a harrowing, thought-provoking experience which arguably acquits many parents of misbehaving children and youths parents whose feeling of powerlessness probably will have overshadowed their love for their child in many cases. On the other hand, the film demonstrates a one-sidedness and misanthropy which borders on offensive. For viewers with a normal frame of reference (that is to say, practically everyone), it is hard to accept that people like Kevin do or can exist. Especially the scenes of him as a toddler, which are more reminiscent of a film like The Omen than a serious and relevant social drama which this film aims to be.
The film also reminded me of Doris Lessing's brilliant little novel "The Fifth Child", especially in that we get to feel and experience the mother's hopelessness. Still there are some differences which I believe Let's Talk About Kevin ends up with the short end of. Firstly, "The Fifth Child" is about a problematic child whom the mother feels was completely different from the day he was born. He is described as otherworldly, unnatural almost, but neither she nor the viewer is ever able to quite point out what's wrong with him. This ambiguity is nowhere to be found in Let's Talk About Kevin, and this lessens the film. Kevin is basically portrayed as a serial killer in the making from the day he was born; there is no triggering factor, not even much of a development to speak of. While I'm not trained in psychology, like most people I know that the study of the psyche is not an exact science; it's way too complex and devious for that. If there is one thing Let's Talk About Kevin is guilty of, it is simplification. Kevin is as he is, and the film invites us more to stand flabbergasted by him than try to understand why.
The second difference between this film and the aforementioned novel by Doris Lessing is how the mothers' situations are mirrored. Although Tilda Swinton gives a solid performance here, I still don't feel her despair to the degree that I know I would have done in her situation. Swinton is depleted, apathetic and cold - and rightly so, but I also wanted to get more inside her head intellectually. How did she feel this could have happened along the way? Why didn't she get more help? Why was she not more desperate to make her son change?Formally and stylistically, writer/director Lynne Ramsay makes effective, appropriately idiosyncratic choices. The film creates its own narrative identity and sticks to it. It's not challenging to watch the film from a narrative point of view, it's actually quite rewarding. However, it's an ordeal to watch from a thematic point of view. The nature of the story is completely and bitterly tragic, and most people who'll be watching this film will know that before they start. Still, I was hoping to see a little more promise, a bit of faith in humanity. Because no matter how severe the tragedy, life goes on. Let's Talk About Kevin is a strong film, as strong as most anything you'll see, and the character of Kevin intrigued me deeply. But I wanted to get to know him better because in my worldview, there has to be something good, something human and sympathetic inside there somewhere.