Some of the most unnerving tales centre around parenthood. Perhaps because it’s so relatable – if we aren’t parents ourselves, we are certainly all children and can understand the stresses and fears that our parents must have felt as we grow up. So when a story comes along that uses the parent/child relationship as a springboard, it feels more plausible…and as such, more likely to be happening in the world we know.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is the story of Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton). When we first meet her, we see that she is world-wise: the sort of person that has run in Pamplona or thrown tomatoes in Bunol. She eventually meets Franklin, gets married and gives birth to a baby boy named Kevin.
Motherhood does not go well for Eva. She cannot seem to bond with Kevin who first makes too much noise, and then not enough. As he grows, her frustrations continue. Kevin seems to favour his relationship with his father, acts belligerent and defiant, and becomes prone to moments of violence. By the time Kevin reaches sixteen years of age, it’s clear that Eva cannot connect with him – try as she may.
Underscoring this entire tale of parental distress is the way the film flips from then to now. Details are sketchy, but early on we understand a few details about an event. We know that something truly violent has happened, we know that Kevin did it, and we know that the whole town hates Eva now because of it.
The two sides of the story see-saw through the film, leaving us sympathetic as Eva searches for answers, and even more so later as she struggles to cope.
When a young person does something hateful and violent, the natural reaction is to ask “where were the parents?”. What’s more is that the when the anger and frustration of those left behind continues to be aimed at the parents, it sentences them to an unjust fate. They did not commit the act, and might not have been able to do a thing to prevent it…but yet they must shoulder the blame. What’s worse, is that they are forced to shoulder the blame of a community on top of the blame they already inflict upon themselves.
What happens though, when we ask “where were the parents?”, and the answer is that they were there the whole time. The parents of maladjusted young people could know full-well that something isn’t right with their child, and just might not be able to reach them try as they may. What then? Are they supposed to turn their backs on their own blood? The fact that their children aren’t thriving is pressure enough on a parent: It plays upon the constant worry that they aren’t doing their job right and screwing up the child’s whole future. That’s the sad truth behind a story like WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN…sometimes a parent can try everything, and still not manage to reach their child.
To these ends, Tilda Swinton’s performance in the film is one for the books. She finds two very distinct modes for her character – one for “before”, one for “after”. “Before” she has to deal with the realities of postpartum depression off the hop, and then struggles to find her footing as a mother when every tactic she tries with her son leaves him defiant. Try as she might to cover it up, her weariness and exacerbation are clear, and without ever getting showy in her performance, we feel it to the core. “After” her sadness and stress finds a whole new level, and now there’s a constant fear that seems to be mixed in. It’s as if she has suddenly lost the nerve to look the world in the eye. Yet at the same time, he refuses to be beaten down…she keeps working, keeps living, and keeps dressing the wounds of her town’s hate.
This is a rare film – the sort that is violent and disturbing without overtly being violent and disturbing. It leaves us unsettled throughout, primarily by never specifically addressing what has happened. Not only does it continue to duck the key event, but as it does so it continues to drop clues that become impossible to ignore. It fills the screen with pure visual splendour; giving us moments and shots that are breathtaking in their elegance.
Strangely, these shots and moments only unnerve us that much further. It’s as if we’re walking through an art gallery and have happened upon a painting of a rotting corpse that is perfect in its technique. Within the film, we notice increasing splashes of red in the photography – red cans, red jackets, red candles. So much red keeps us off-kilter, reminding us of the violence looming above the story that we don’t yet know.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is sad and darkly poetic. It’s a ballad for a mother who never wants to give up, and a dark lament as to why she should. Tilda Swinton reaches out to us, and evokes sympathy we never knew we were capable of having. Her spirit has been ground into powder by the burden of being a mother, but she still isn’t ready to give up on that responsibility yet.
If you’ve seen WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, or read about its plot elsewhere, you might have noticed that I’ve ducked the details about Kevin’s violent act. I knew about it going in, and it didn’t ruin the experience for me. However, I found myself so taken with the artful way in which it is first only alluded to – and ultimately revealed – that I wanted to omit it from my piece. I will say that of the half-dozen times I’ve seen this act portrayed on film in the last fifteen years or so…this is by far the most haunting.