We Need to Talk About Kevin
Recent scientific studies have revealed that narrative artforms such as film, music or prose fiction physically help their readers form empathetic connections to other human beings back in the real world. One of those scientists, Keith Oatley puts it this way, saying of stories that they are “a simulation that runs on the software of our minds. … Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.” So seeing a story unfold from the perspective of someone other than ourselves is basically mimicking exactly the emotional process of empathy at its psychological core; and once your feet have been forced into other people’s shoes often enough they become calloused to the pains of the change, making you as comfortable in a characters world as your own or your neighbours. I say all of this because Lynne Ramsay’s latest feature, We Need To Talk About Kevin, is in many ways an exploration of empathy, that of its characters and our own towards them.
The only thing that separates us from being a society of sociopaths is our capability to feel for others, but what Ramsey’s film seems to suggest is that the talent isn’t simply black and white, its actually a matter of circumstantial greyscale. Serial killers then obviously don’t have the capacity for it that we do, otherwise they wouldn’t do what they do, but do we have the capacity to feel empathy for them? What about for those that created them, both literally and figuratively? For me this is the question at the core of this film, which tells the story of Eva , the natural mother and nurturer of such a sociopath.
Flittering between past and future the film provides us with the entire origin of such a boy, of such a beast; from conception, through childhood and into the first burgeoning stages of maturity and perhaps even the development of morals. While this structure is at first a little disconcerting, each stream seems too short and too segregated to truly mean anything to us, it eventually comes together for great effect, juxtaposing cleverly the cause with the effect. unfortunately, for me, the future sections of the film were by far the most powerful and convincing: seeing the sheer scathing hatred that the townspeople feel for Eva because of her sons actions and her own, somehow more potent self-loathing is immensely powerful; the kind of extreme emotional experience that you only ever want to have via the empathetic link of fiction.
Tilda Swinton is simply superb in the role, giving the kind of drained and depressed performance that only she can give. She draws you into her world completely, so that her son is now also your burden and his actions now your responsibility. Though this may in fact contribute somewhat to the immersion I did find Eva somewhat lacking as a character in her own right, you don’t get much of a sense of who she was or who she would have been were it not for her son. There are some rather unsubtle scenes based around her famed sense of adventure and apparent novel-writing, but these play more as an exaggeration of that general parenthood complaint than anything too defining. As far as reactionary roles go though, this is surely one of the better and most involving out there, despite – or perhaps because of – its simplicity.
There is a scene midway through the film (though it occurs chronologically towards the end of the tale) in which Eva is confronted on the way home from work by a horde of giggling Halloween ghosts and ghouls. They scare her, but only by association for she has known a true monster and is still, truly haunted by it, it’s mask far more terrifying than anything that you could mould out of rubber. To everyone else Kevin, her son, is a perfectly charming child. In fact, the teen version, as played by Ezra Miller, is actually quite attractive as his constant shirtlessness attests. That he is handsome is somehow more horrifying than if he were a freak or an outcast, because those we can relate to in some way, those kinds of monsters we can actually understand, but Kevin? Kevin has no real reason to be like he is and this for me is the films biggest failing, one that only became clear to me during the aforementioned scene. Whereas Lionel Shriver’s novel was a mediation on nature versus nurture, a study on why we do what we do, Lyne Ramsay’s version is a horror movie through and through.
Kevin is not just a sociopath, he is evil, he is essentially Damien for the twenty-first century. We are lead to believe that this child is not only misbehaved, but manipulative right from birth.As a young child he is portrayed with dark ominous eyes and he acts irrevocably immorally, sure this is the point of the story and sure it is thus necessary but there comes a point where having him spend a scene snapping every crayon in his art box is not just unneccessary but unrealistic. Now, certainly nothing that he actually does is beyond the realm of possibility, but the implied intentions are and the sheer volume of stories about his troubling childhood almost work to reduce the impact of his later actions; when he’s this clearly evil all along it’s no shock that he would go and do something like he does. A subtler, more shaded approach to this material could only have helped sell it and, in part, this is what Ezra Miller delivers in the pivotal scenes as the older Kevin.
There is of course an explanation for this, but it’s one that I find a little undercooked upon delivery. A key part of empathy is of course perspective;relating is not just a matter of looking at someones situation, it’s looking at it through their eyes and this film is very much told through the eyes of Eva. With that being the case one can then assume that these scenes are subjective and stylised to suit; Eva feels like the boy is bad and so she sees things that otherwise might not be there. There are times when Kevin’s actions seem consistent to those of a normal child, where the intent is simply added in later: As a child he screams all day while with his mother but soothes as soon as his dad enters the house. Eva takes this personally, as she does all of the boys actions, but could it not simply be a case of coincidence? If she were a little more empathetic would she not realise that maybe the boy simply likes the father more because he is a , as most young sons seem to, and because he isn’t often there ( we always want what we can’t have). This approach is strong but it’s not one that feels strongly built into the material and so I simply cannot excuse those scenes because of it.
Despite all the wretched, wrenching things that Kevin does during this film the most shocking scene is one that contains no violence at all, it comes right at the end but isn’t, narratively speaking, a spoiler. Eva finally confronts Kevin, long after the incident, and although she doesn’t get any kind of satisfying answer from him he does let slip a slight glimmer of remorse and for her that’s enough. After all these years of torture, after all that he’s done she hugs him and hugs him hard. The film has you in Eva’s spike-laden shoes for it’s entire length – seeing as she sees, feeling as she feels – so then when she does that, dragging you along with her, the film confronts you with the questions: Could I be so forgiving? And should I even want to be? I don’t rightly know the answer, but it is a question well worth wondering on. I’d like to think that I am an ultra-empathetic person but to be honest I’m finding it hard to entirely forgive this film its flaws. I can though embrace it as an experience, not always a good one and very rarely a happy one, but one that will plague me like red on a white wood wall.