We Need to Talk about Kevin

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This is the amazing, arresting image that this film opens with:

I know now, because I looked it up, that it’s meant to be La Tomatina, a bizarre annual festival held in Buñol, Spain (and other places as well), at which people throw tomatoes at each other for an hour. But it also looks like a circle of hell, as another reviewer astutely noted.

The first half hour or so of We Need to Talk about Kevin is similarly arresting, disturbing, and off putting. What it does is mash up time and place, with no coherent story being told. We jump from now to then but have no way of knowing which is which.

Which is something I find particularly fascinating. Years ago, at the Hirschhorn, we saw a terrific exhibit, The Cinema Effect Part I: Dreams. There was a mesmerizing multi-panel “movie” being shown in a continuous loop. But it wasn’t a movie. It was just scenes, each projected on a different panel. WE made it a movie, a story, by arbitrarily deciding in our minds that a certain scene must have preceded or followed another. And I loved what that said about storytelling, and the human desire—instinct—to make stories.

The opening of Kevin does the same thing, making us rely on different cues than we usually do in movies to get the story: without linear narrative or dialogue to guide us, we still find—or make—a story. And we have to look very closely to do so: noting hair length, clothing, emotions, to figure out where we, and the characters, are. I was almost sorry when the movie settled down into longer stretches in time frames we had become familiar with.

We had looked forward to seeing this movie for some time; the preview is gripping, exciting. And I have to confess to being a little let down, maybe a lot, by the actual film.

In its favor: the fascinating use of time, the lack of a linear narrative, the layering and filling in of the protagonist’s memory—which is what all the scenes we are being shown really are. Also, the splendid use of color. Red, red, red pours through it—from the tomatoes to the startling lipstick the pallid Tilda Swinton occasionally sports to the implied and actual blood that spews in Kevin’s wake. And the blue, the deep cold rich blue of Kevin’s room. Also too, the empty empty rooms that the family occupies but does not live in. A seemingly mile-long great room with nothing great in it but space. And what cramped yet Spartan bedrooms they all occupy.

So all of the STUFF of the movie is great: its look and feel and tone.

But then you get to the story, and I don’t know if all the great form and format is supporting something that is ultimately worthy of it.

From lengthy perusal on the web, I have learned two things about Kevin: (1) the movie is very different from the book, and (2) that both have struck a real nerve with a lot of people about the nature-nurture debate regarding evil. More specifically, and less high-falutingly re. that last, people are endlessly fascinated by bad parents and bad children, since it really does make us all feel a bit superior. Ultimately, this is an answer to the Columbine shooting, and just being able to provide an answer makes us feel better.

But I can’t say as I’m crazy about this answer just now. Because this answer seems to be that the erstwhile independent career woman that Swinton plays is a lousy, lousy mother, responsible for her son’s crimes and deserving to be punished because of her failings.

And yes, I do know that this is all being filtered through her memory and that maybe she isn’t as bad as she thinks herself to be (but really! she broke the kid’s arm in a fit of rage. And she never, never reprimands him or sets limits or hugs him impulsively or does anything anything anything loving or motherly.) And I know too that Kevin is supposed to be a bad seed Rhoda Penmar kid, unloving and unlovable. But it just didn’t work for me. I just saw that we were supposed to conclude that a woman was an unnatural monster who would rather be in France and who didn’t love her child, and that he went off on a murderous rampage consequently.

That’s a very dangerous post-feminist message to be imparting in these times. It plays right into the hands of the menfolk running for office around this country who want women back in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant. So even though it’s nuanced and intriguing, I fear for it being taken at face value and used in campaign stump speeches as a sort of “see what happens when you let women move beyond their god-given role?” THAT is more chilling than the movie itself…

we-need-to-talk-about-kev-0071I must remark too on a very odd scene: the sequence where Eva, the mother, takes Kevin out, first to play mini-golf and then to dinner. This woman was a completely different person from the beaten-down, weary mother Eva was throughout the rest of the film. With her perfect makeup and power suit and heels (and for the first time, Swinton was actually walking well in the heels, rather than tripping over them, symbolically showing us how this woman’s equilibrium was totally wrecked; see how she holds her legs in this scene, all akimbo and graceless), Eva was a force to be reckoned with, tart tongued and critical. I think this is more like she is in the book, more like she was in her past perhaps?

But it was totally out of left field here, as if from a different movie. I found it terribly jarring.

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