Missing the point: On negotiating realities in (reviewing) ‘We need to talk about Kevin’

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I am currently working off my ‘to watch’ list that has accumulated during term time. Once again, I am surprised by the kind of films that captivate me. They are often the once that are quite low on my list, either because of their subject matter or uninspiring trailers. ‘We need to talk about Kevin’ is one of those films. It has been lurking on my list for many months and, suddenly, out of a whim, I decided to watch it – and was blown away. [caution: spoiler alert!]

‘We need to talk about Kevin’ is centred around a violent boy who ends up committing a massacre at his school. The film follows the boy’s mother, Eva (played by Tilda Swinton), through her present and past life, from just before Kevin’s birth until his move to an adult prison facility. The film can be described as a drama, psychological thriller, horror or even dark comedy. You can watch the trailer here.

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Kevin is born – soon Eva will seek solace in building site noise

Already while watching the film, I started taking notes and searching for film reviews. I wanted to know if anyone else ‘got’ what I saw in the film. I was both shocked and affirmed in my suspicions that I could not find any discussion of ‘it’. In fact, the film was critiqued in many predictable ways for missing the point. Reviewers have criticised the film for lacking emotional depth, explanatory power, coherence and realism; for portraying Kevin as implausibly demonic; and for being a shallow product of upper middle-class imagination that is unable to deal with social complexities. Other targets include hatred of bohemian lifestyles, demonisation of motherhood and unnecessary abstraction. There is only one review (by Travis Wagner) that I found that came close to my own reading of the film. It focuses on the portrayal of violence in the film:

“In fact, one could make the argument that Ramsay’s film draws greater concern to the family structure of contemporary America as a place of latent violence. The silences and back room dealings that happen within even the seemingly happiest and well-to-do families only lays in wait for something tragic. Life, according to the world of We Need To Talk About Kevin, is usually shitty and there is no explanation as to why, yet it is pointless to dwell on the past no matter how dismal the present may be, simply put, there is no going back to a time before.”

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Kevin’s parents waiting for his sister at hospital after household chemicals ‘accident’

I would like to take this argument a little further: the violence in the film results not just from life’s pointlessness and from a specifically American context, but from a jarring of realities. The problem with most of the reviews is that their writers critique the film from within their reality, what they believe to be ‘common sense’. For instance, they critique that the film fails to engage with the underlying causes of school shootings, which for one author are “the endless wars and talk of war, the social polarization, the worship of money, greed and selfishness, the brutalization and cheap misanthropy of popular culture and everyday life, the repudiation of the idea of social progress, the severe demoralization of a section of the youth, and all the rest”. This listing illustrates the writer’s assumption that if all of society’s problems were fixed, there is no reason or condition for violence.

This perspective remains completely oblivious to the possibility that, even if social inequality and greed are erased, human life might still seem unbearably absurd, if you have the curse or blessing of a slightly detached view. The film emphasises this possibility and the resulting jarring realities. It becomes gradually evident that the film is really told from Kevin’s perspective, not from Eva’s. What we see through Kevin’s eyes are freakish attempts at social formation, starting with the constant eliciting and measuring of achievements, and later expectations of etiquette and performance of prescribed relationships. Normal expectations become absurd: what and who do these demands serve?

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The young Kevin refusing appropriate development

To Kevin, what other people consider normality not only feels numbing, but ridiculous. People feel unreal in how they act, in their struggle to uphold this normality. People think their life has a point, but it doesn’t. This realisation seems to be the main reason for Kevin’s disregard for life. Perhaps this is mixed with a resentment of being born, being thoughtlessly condemned to a pointless existence. In light of this interpretation, Kevin’s strange and shocking behaviour as a child and teenager can be read as instinctive attempts to force his mother into abandoning her reality, to see how he sees the world. We see how Eva struggles against this taunting reality and with his constant confrontation. Sometimes, this struggle takes on comical forms, the comedy emerging out of the oddity of ‘normality’ as much as out of encounters with Kevin’s ‘alternative reality’ – or even Eva’s imagined freedom of pre-Kevin reality.

The parallel realities are reflected in the film’s aesthetics and cuts. While many reviewers have critiqued the theatrical element, it precisely reflects Kevin’s view of the world. In a sense, Kevin creates an augmented reality in his deliberate play with what is ‘normal’. It is a performance within the performance of others that interferes with it, but also affirms it. Kevin knows how people are going to react, what people going to do – he confirms and plays a stereotype in their reality. A loner who takes revenge on the popular kids, who suffers from a refusal of white male entitlement, who strives for a ‘red carpet’ moment. In his reality, he ridicules theirs – the clinging to a comforting illusion, even when the most violent interruption cuts through it. Most people remain unaware of what and how they are performing, and if the do, they do not wish to be reminded of it. Kevin knows that this reality will stay intact as a system, but maybe not for everyone whom he affects with his actions.

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Teenage Kevin surrenders to the police

For me, a key moment takes place when Eva spots the yellow locks on the gymnasium doors after arriving at the school. She had witnessed the arrival of the locks at her home, having taken on the delivery for her son. At this point she has confirmation that her son is not one of the potential victims, but the perpetrator: he is the one who is holding people hostage and killing them. With the fire brigade’s breaking of the main lock, Eva’s reality, too, is being broken, with the final rupture taking place after she returns home to find her husband and daughter in the garden, also murdered by her son. Perversely, from this moment onwards, she is forced to begin to see what he sees: to what lengths people will go to protect their reality and force others to participate in it: the necessity of a scapegoat, of clearly defined good and evil, of manicured appearances.

This gradual approaching of realities is hinted at during the final scene, where Eva visits her son in prison. The encounter takes place just before Kevin is to be ‘upgraded’ to the adult prison, after two years in a young offenders institution. After the usual awkward conversation, Eva finally confronts Kevin and asks him why he killed all these people. At first, Kevin graces her with his usual look – as if his mother would never understand him from the position of her reality. But then he seems to realise that she now lives in a different reality that is closer to his: for Eva, life around her has also become absurd and twisted. Kevin’s reality, too, is likely to have changed after being exposed to the alternate reality of the prison – a space that is often regarded as the dark condition for keeping ‘normality’ intact. This exposure beyond his experience of ‘normality’ might interfere with his ability to keep up his pattern. It could explain why Kevin, in the end, answers with something like: ‘I used to know why I did it, but now I’m not sure anymore.’ Before Eva leaves, Kevin gets up as if he opens himself for a hug – an unusual gesture that Eva responds to forcefully. Perhaps they can finally meet in the same reality.

The film ends with Eva walking towards the prison doors that open towards a white wall. On moving closer to the wall, the camera gives the impression of light. A pessimistic reading could view the light as an illusion of clarity – that the achievement of supposed clarity is just one further layer of illusion in a never-ending series of (self)deception. With a more positive inclination, this ending can be interpreted as an almost literal enlightenment – an invitation to finally begin a process of sense-making that is based on a clearer assessment of reality and a loss of fear from the horror of life. While the light may be brutal, at least it liberates from social prison.

Further, the hint of Kevin’s fragility at the end of the film could be read as a realisation that Kevin’s choice of how to deal with what he perceived as a ‘fake reality’ is not the only possibility. Nor is the reality that he loathed the only one out there. Here, the film seems to suggest that it is perhaps an even scarier or daunting challenge to find an alternative way of contesting hegemonic realities. Such a search will inevitably lead to existential questions and demand seemingly impossible levels of imagination. Perhaps it is not surprising that people shy away and choose self-projection and violence instead. In this sense, the film is as much a metaphor as an analysis of mass violence.

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