We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), directed by Lynne Ramsay

Welcome one, welcome all to the new home of CineFile. I know, I know, I’m excited too. Settle down. Some of you may be new to this blog, some of you may be holdouts from its previous home at the Powell River Peak, where the blog has been hosted for the past two years. Some of you may never read this, which is fair. Either way, here we go.

Okay, listen, we need to talk about We Need to Talk About Kevin. I was excited to see this film because two of my favourite actors are in it (Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly) and because of the massive amount of acclaim it is getting. I kind of knew what it was about, but not really. The trailer makes it clear that it’s about a disturbed child, a distraught mother and, possibly, some sort of horrendous event, but it’s notably abstruse.

Turns out that’s exactly what it’s about. But nothing could have prepared me for just how intense, creative, consuming and, ultimately, affecting We Need to Talk About Kevin truly is.

There’s no need to sugarcoat it, this is a creepy and hugely impactful movie. This is a good mood buster. Its narrative is somewhat abstract as it jumps around in time and uses a barrel full of “arty” cinematic techniques to disorient the viewer and create an atmosphere of chaos and violence. It works.

It’s a deeply textural film. The editing is frantic, yet precise, as it weaves together various points in time and intersperses creative montages with its linear narrative to create an image of a personality formed as much, if not more, by the chaos of nature then the shortcomings of parenting. We are never asked to sympathize with the character but the structure of the film asks us to perhaps understand him: it is deadening, terrifying and exhausting and gives a sense of the hopelessness that perhaps drives Kevin.

I came out of the theatre wondering whether this film is anything even close to an accurate portrayal of the kind of person who ends up committing an atrocity like Kevin’s. I doubted it. I was in high school when the Columbine tragedy occurred and have been reading about the Kimberly Proctor murder here in Langford as the second anniversary of her death approaches. In cases like this we see accounts of teenagers with obvious mental illness, who obsess over death, violence and harming others and themselves. They leave a trail of evidence that leads to a psychological profile that speaks of personality disorders, sociopathy and psychopathy. Surely the parents would have known.

But in cases like this none of that is discovered until after the crime. And the parents often don’t have a clue. Read, for instance, this letter from Susan Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters. Klebold seemed more depressed and suicidal perhaps then psychopathic, but obviously that is hard to say for sure. Kevin is psychopathic. And a sociopath. He obviously has no empathy or love or respect for life. He is not an animal. He is a monster. His mother knows Kevin is not normal, but even so, how could she possibly have predicted what he did?

My only concern is whether this film should be taken as a legitimate look at mental illness; at its causes and symptoms and those that the illness affects. Or is it a horror movie? If it’s a horror movie it’s one of the scariest and most lingeringly creepy horror films I’ve seen in a while. If it is an accurate portrait of a school shooter then it is even more horrifying.

That being said, if it is just a horror movie then that could be problematic and exploitative. I love exploitation cinema, but obviously to exploit school shootings falls somewhere well outside the line of even stretched good taste. I’m not going to be able to answer this one as I’m not an expert on the psychology of school shooters. I have done a number of Wiki searches on school shootings, and on sociopathy and psychopathy, and my doubts about the accuracy of this movie are certainly less then when I left the theatre.

We Need to Talk About Kevin brings up the old nature versus nurture debate. The truth is that there are people like or very similar to Kevin in the world, people who are completely nihilistic, violent and destructive. What produces them? Is it purely mental illness? Or something lacking in their upbringing? How do bad people come from seemingly good homes? What makes a boy like Kevin?

This is the struggle of the film and the struggle of Tilda Swinton’s character. She isn’t necessarily fit for motherhood and would prefer to be off traveling the world. But does she deserve this? And is it her fault? Nobody is a perfect parent, even Reilly’s character, who is the ultimate supportive dad, could be called overbearing. But again, I’m sure we all have complaints about our parents and we aren’t murderers (I hope).

We see at time Kevin displaying emotion. At the end he claims that he no longer know why he did what he did. Do we believe him? Is there something resembling a human being behind those cold, piercing eyes? That is left for us to decide.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is in theatres now.