We Need to Talk About Kevin (UK, 2011, Lynne Ramsay)
I am going to give the book I have not read on which the film is based the benefit of the doubt. I am going to assume that the novel is a compelling read because it successfully provides the psychological interiority of the character of the mother who recalls the story from her first person point of view. It is precisely this inner mentality that the film fails to deliver. Or, maybe the fault does reside with the original source material. Either way, the film never gets inside the head of the mother.
Tilda Swinton puts in a strong performance as Chistopher Walken's twin sister, a pale death-mask to be sure. Director Lynne Ramsey demonstrates that she can decorate a room in the house that Hitchcock built, albeit decked out with art-house dread rather than his main-frame suspense. The total picture does not add up to more than the sum of its parts, however. It presents a portrait of a terribly dysfunctional family due to a horribly sociopathic member who victimizes another member. But this comes over as an almost objective account that never reveals the deep subjectivity of the victim. This it must do in order for the narrative to bring out from our palms the clammy recognition that we are in the presence of pure evil.
Meanwhile, the notion of pure evil has always offended me conceptually. No doubt, there are homicidal maniacs that walk the earth. And admittedly, there is a biological basis for the depravity of these individuals. But as Mary Shelly makes clear in no uncertain terms, monsters are made. Some sinister electricity has to be jolted into bad flesh in order for it to come together as Frankenstein. So-called natural born killers need nurturing too; nasty nurturing, but nurturing nonetheless.
We Need To Talk About Kevin gives but a single nod in this direction. The mother was ambivalent about becoming a mother and this is for the boy a corrupting cause insofar as he has always had a sixth sense that he was not wanted in the first place. Other than this extremely vague suggestion that he is reacting to what he intuites to be a false show of love on her part, his socio-pathology is presented as utterly innate. It is absolutely mysterious in relation to his immediate human relations. It is plainly laid out that mom wants to love him but he does everthing in his power to prevent her from doing so. How his larger social environment beyond his home life shapes him we are shown not at all. Honestly, more than once watching the film I flashed on The Excorcist. Kevin is essentially possessed by The Devil. From his first screams in the stroller to his last arrow shot in the school gym.
I would not take offense with this - yet another Hannibal Lecter tale - if it did not so easily play into the most reactionary, right-wing sentiments. To make the ideological point with a slogan, there is a direct line from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the death penalty in Texas, (the B-movie camp of the former withstanding.) We Need To Talk About Kevin gives at least a couple loud cues to lean in this direction. The inclusion of a scene featuring Kevin as a sexual being is vital to demonizing him. The mother accidentally invades his privacy while he is masturbating and he suffers no shame. Quite the contrary, he wickedly continues his beastial act, perversely compelling his mother to be his witness. The incest implication is candid within this exhibitionist rape.
More subtle but perhaps even more off-putting, the dialogue in the the final jail-house scene notifies us that because he was tried as a minor, Kevin will be out on the streets soon enough. I have already noted that this lends itself to conservative ranting about the need for more punishing law and order. The present point is that the audience is supposed to leave the theatre knowing that killer-Kevin is waiting for them. If not tonight, tomorrow night. And while it is dramatically legitimate and perhaps even emotionally gratifying for the kid to confess at the end that even he does not understand his own motivations, this is hardly comforting to contemplate after he is out on parole. In short, the film finishes with a hack shock effect.
Clearly, this sort of movie is just not my cup of tea. I will acknowledge that it is to be commended for refraining from overt sensationalism. There is almost no violence and very little gruesome graphics. A staggering degree of menace is achieved simply at the level of atmospherics and I suppose for fans of the sicko genre We Need To Talk About Kevin is thinking-man's stylish. But I believe the best horror penetrates beyond external vibe to internal thought-process and I have to reiterate that the film never truly takes us within mom's head. Think of any number of films by Polanski for the standard that is informing me.