Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Little Devil - We Need To Talk About Kevin Review

by Nick Pierce


From the extraordinary overhead shots of the Valencian La Tomatina festival that open the film, showing Eva Khatchadourian played by Tilda Swinton writhing amongst hordes of euphoric revellers drenched in blood-red tomato pulp like some great Renaissance painting of a Dantean hell come to life, it is apparent that We Need To Talk About Kevin is at heart a horror movie, albeit of an unusual variety, finding the sinister in what at first appearances seems anything but. Like The Shining, that other great horror film about the family, Kevin offers the disturbing possibility that this most universal of human social units need not necessarily deliver the fulfilment and security that we expect of it.
  The story recounts in elliptical, time-jumping fashion the nightmarish trials of Eva’s experiences of motherhood, as she struggles to overcome her aversion to her son and her creeping suspicion that he is motivated by evil impulses, and her crushed, isolated existence in the wake of the realisation of her worst fears. As it does so the film presents an image of family life that is far from cosy. In one great scene, Eva’s private room devoted to her passion for travelling, a relic of her pre-domestic life that she yearns for, is cruelly vandalised by her infant son. When her husband Franklin, played by the ever-reliable John C Reilly, returns home, he fails to appreciate how upset Eva is by this, complacently remarking, as he will do again later on, that boys will be boys. In this skewed microcosm of domestic interaction, the film hints in gothic manner at how the family dynamic can oppress the personality of the individual in its tyranny of values i.e. that the needs of the child nullify the desires and dreams of the parent.  
  Lynne Ramsay, director and screenwriter of this remarkable film, may be a woman, but she can congratulate herself on making a film with bigger balls than any other title released so far in 2011. The greatness and daring of We Need To Talk About Kevin inheres precisely in this provocative exploration of the nature of parenting and of evil. As Steven Pinker writes in his recent publication, The Blank Slate, in contemporary society it is conventionally held that every individual is shaped by his environment and that the relationship of the mother and father with their child is one of central importance in the development of the latter. This belief has given rise to endless TV shows and manuals on proper parenting, and the familiar reaction of blaming criminal behaviour on unhappy childhoods. Pinker posits that the idea of the child as a ‘blank slate’ may well be scientifically insupportable, and that there are perhaps aspects of an individual’s personality that inhere in their genetic makeup which are beyond alteration or correction by any parent, no matter how authoritative and committed. It’s a disturbing notion, cutting straight to the heart of one of our most comforting sets of ideas: that anyone can be reformed and that a human being is capable of infinite change for the better.
  Kevin powerfully reflects this perennial contention over the causes and the constraints of human nature. Many reviews of the film have asserted that its deeply haunting effect owes to its invoking of another taboo – that of a mother who hates her child. But whilst this is undeniably part of its thematic richness, it is similarly noteworthy for refusing to satisfy any easy liberal cliché about the root of evil. Kevin’s crimes are not explained away as the result of a botched upbringing; his father loves him unquestioningly and attentively, and his mother is seen (for the most part) trying patiently to overcome her son’s seemingly inexplicable, almost demonic antagonism. Instead, they seem to emanate from some element of Kevin’s psyche outside of the control of his family or even himself: ‘I used to think I knew’ he mumbles when his crumpled mother begs him to tell her why he did it, ‘but now I’m not so sure.’ Whether the viewer chooses to interpret this unexplained motive as genetic or otherwise it is undoubtedly more complex, troubling and potentially unknowable than the straightforward environmental factors that would be proposed by the ‘blank slate’ argument. Indeed, the film even suggests the danger of such a system of thought in its portrayal of the persecution the mother faces at the hands of the families of Kevin’s victims, who apparently blame her for her son’s actions. In these scenes the movie intimates that such irrational judgments are the logical eventuality of elevating the role of parenting to such paramount significance in the progression of each individual from child to adult. In other words, if the child has turned out evil, it must be the mother who made him so.
  Ultimately, the outlandish extremity of Kevin’s acts and the psychological duel between mother and son depicted as having begun at the very moment of the latter’s birth imbue the film with an almost mythic dimension. By stripping down the narrative to the core relationship of these two characters Ramsay brings them close to something like archetypes: the Tormented Mother and the Malevolent Son. For some tastes, this might seem to go too far and sacrifice any political or social commentary in favour of the baroque. But this would be to miss the point. It is surely by showing extremes that art like We Need To Talk About Kevin can prompt questions about the unexamined aspects of that which we only prefer to think we already understand. And because it prompts these questions, it is a picture that will stay with you for a long time after you’ve left the cinema.