We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

On International Women’s Day, we need to talk about mothers. Motherhood, the role that can bring so much joy, and so much grief. No grief can compare to that of seeing your child self-destruct, and in the process, destroying others.

To start with, the wandering, free-spirited Eva (Tilda Swinton) before motherhood reflects an unsettling soul. Seems like she accidentally trespasses into the territory that calls for extreme commitment when she gets pregnant. While other expectant mothers fully embrace their swollen bellies, Eva faces her pregnancy with apprehension and awkwardness. Once Kevin is born, she knows full well that it is an irreversible life-long occupation.

Kevin screams all day and night as a baby, is incommunicable as a toddler, foul-mouthed, menacing and hateful as a child. The first thing he does to his newborn younger sister while visiting her in the hospital is to splash water into her eyes. This act will be repeated when he becomes a teenager, but it won’t be as harmless as water. Can’t his parents see it coming? I must give credit to Tilda Swinton, who has given us an audacious and engaging performance as Eva, but one, I’m afraid, that may not appear quite as sensible as it should.

If you are not a tiger mom, but has a tiger son on your hands, what are you to do? Wouldn’t you have sought professional help for your child, or counselling for yourself? Yes, we see Eva take Kevin to a doctor when he’s a non-communicating toddler, but what about all the years hence, until at 16 when all hell breaks loose? Ezra Miller as teenaged Kevin is a persona of a most disturbed young man; unfortunately, his self-absorbed, relentless evil scheming renders his performance two-dimensional.

I have not read the book by Lionel Shriver. We Need to Talk About Kevin was the Orange Prize Winner of 2005, an award honoring women’s writing. Shriver might well have depicted her characters and their inner turmoils with more depth, as a literary rendition can.

I knew of the plot in general before I stepped into the theatre. My expectation was that the film would be exploring the issues of parental responsibility and guilt from raising a wayward child despite all good intentions. I thought it would deal with the problem of evil, or the issue of nature and nurture, and the choices we can make in spite of our predicament.

But the film surprises me in that it has not delivered what could have been a study of any of the above issues. Maybe parental guilt, but still, not in depth. We only see the stunned look of Eva in every scene. Even before the tragic end, with overwhelming evidences of a terribly disturbed son, we hear little communication between Eva and her unsuspecting husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), who encourages Kevin’s interest in archery. (ah-ha… big hint)  Seems like director Lynne Ramsay’s goal is just to shock and disturb with exaggerated visuals and sounds, or its lack of to create mood. The ubiquitous red, another obvious hint. It is effective as an absorbing, suspenseful thriller, relentless in its portrayal of evil, but for the purpose of…?

The film has been talked about much in the UK. And on both sides of the Atlantic, many critics have given it high acclaim; others have pointed to its Oscar snub. While I had high expectation before I saw it, I left with a void of disappointment, which, I’m afraid, has extinguished my interest to read the book. If you have read it, I’d love to hear you tell me otherwise.

But on this very day, let us give kudos to all mothers who, regardless of results, stay true to their role and love in spite of everything. This we can see in the final scene and the last shot, the embrace in prison, probably the most meaningful in the whole film.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

22 thoughts on “We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)”

  1. I find the reaction, or lack of, to this movie to be rather inane, and needy. It seems people need to be told what to think and experience in really really obvious ways, or they just don’t get it.
    Its a kind of inability to deal with the reality of SOME THINGS JUST CAN’T BE FIXXED, AND MADE UNDERSTANDABLE.
    Vast numbers of people are completely unable to make their lives work, so they need religion, police states, law and order, and whatever—— to make things work for them. This is a movie about nothing working well at all. For me its incredibly brave and true—-to the reality I know. Of course, we all live in our own universe, and have little interests in others.

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    David,

    Makes you think, doesn’t it, that films like these tell us there are things we just can’t fix, no matter how much we try, like, remaking a sinister mind, or, transforming a disturbed soul. Of course society needs to rely on something to manage law and order for us to live together in relative safety. But ultimately, we might need to face the fact that the human condition is just too far gone for us to redeem ourselves.

    Arti

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    1. thanks for the Rex Reed notion of this film. it is funny, sort of. and the comments are not so funny. just more shit slinging. people really can’t bother with any analysis of each other—so they just trade insults—-and further the silly farce we call living.
      however, i don’t think the human race is too far gone for us to ‘redeem’ ourselves, as you say. i have been in brussels for a few days, and the first thing i did upon arriving was attend a concert my friend here had tickets to—–LAURIE ANDERSON—- a sublime human being, who is very soft and subtle, and shares her take on a variety of commonplace things, such as living and dying. when i see such people i don’t entertain our being too far gone. david

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  2. Happy International Women’s Day Arti! Too bad the movie didn’t meet your expectations. Do you think you will be reading the book? I’d like to someday but I think I will skip the movie.

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    Stefanie,

    I remember you’ve a chance to review a Shriver book. Maybe you’ll read it sooner than I. Right now, I’m just swamped with TBR’s and currently reading items.

    Arti

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  3. Arti,
    i have a “blogger” question for you. As a fellow blogger, do you think it is important to have a presence on FB and Pinterest, or ___etc.? I am thinking about it, however, i do NOT do any advertising at all on my blog. I live in Colorado and it is one of a few states that Amazon does not allow any coop sales relationship. If you have any advice, please share via my email. Thanks Arti, i know you are busy.
    Hedda

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    Hedda,

    I just have a simple answer for you. I don’t do FB, never heard of Pinterest. Ripple Effects is my only blog, ads free. I’m on Twitter and Goodreads. You can find those on my sidebar. That’s the extent of my social media involvement. Hope this helps. 🙂

    Arti

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    1. Hedda, my only social media involvement is Twitter, and LinkedIn, if you count that. I quit Facebook and am happy to have done so.

      There are some issues swirling around Pinterest. Many people on the WordPress forums are urging the development of a tool to block Pinterest, because of content theft issues. And, there are legal liabilities for anyone who uses Pinterest. You can read about that here.

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  4. This is one of those films that never came here and I was curious about it. I’m inclined to think I would agree with you, based on your description/analysis. It is sad that they didn’t move into how she could have tried to be more proactive or at least, active. I might be interested in seeing if anything different showed up in the book, but I may give this one a pass.

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    Jeanie,

    Well you see, a film adaptation depends largely on the perspective of the screenwriter/director. That’s why I’m really curious to know what the source material is like. But hey, don’t let me influence you. Go for either of them or both. I’d certainly welcome divergent views.

    Arti

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  5. I appreciate your review, though I haven’t seen the film. It’s interesting how like “The Deep End” in theme this is. I thought she was wonderful in that, and I felt that that film did address the issue (that time her son had killed someone), though it’s been a long time, and I can’t defend that statement with details.

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    SPOILER ALERT In The Following Reply

    Ruth,

    I haven’t seen The Deep End, but yes, that sounds similar. However, Kevin here is more sinister even. All hell breaks loose when he’s 16 when he goes into his high school and unleashes a massacre, and some more. The weapon of choice is obvious as I mentioned in my review. I feel there are things that can be done instead of allowing the incubation of such an evil mind to maturity after 16 long years. Well you see, instead of seeing the style as realism, I really felt like I was watching a genre movie like The Omen, The Good Son, or, Rosemary’s Baby.

    Arti

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  6. I am reading the book with a couple of others the first week of April. I am anxious to finally read it. I am surprised that the movie didn’t really have a message. I would have expected it to, given the subject matter.

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    Ti,

    Great! I’d love to hear what you think of the book, and maybe, the film too if you choose to see it as well. I mean, this is just my own personal reaction to it. I can’t say it ‘didn’t have a message’. But it did seem that the director is going all out for the exposure of a psychotic young mind and a helpless mother. I feel too that it’s quite genre driven, in the style of suspense/thriller/horror, with obvious cinematic effects. I’d love to hear your reading group’s response. Do stop by again and share with us your views.

    Arti

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  7. I’ve read this book and didn’t like it. I especially didn’t like the writing style which depicted Eva’s stream of consciousness. I would really like to see the film though and I love the actress Tilda Swinton. I don’t think the book’s ending was the one you just mentioned in the film.
    It’s interesting to note that Shriver isn’t a parent herself

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    Mrs. B,

    Thank you so much for letting me know about the book. That explains a lot. You see, I can attribute the back and forth, non-linear treatment of the sequences of events to the stream of consciousness style as you’ve mentioned. I’m fine with that. Actually, the film is not hard to follow even though it flips back and forth in time. That part it’s quite well done.

    Another point you brought up is Shriver not being a parent. And that, I feel, might explain the general lack of sensible parental reaction to a son growing up like that. I mean, even if the parents are negligent, the school system can definitely detect problems. But of course I know, finding any solution is a long path. I’m not saying it’s an easy road. But often, identifying a problem is the beginning of a turnaround.

    I can’t agree with you more on the talent of Tilda Swinton. By all means, go see this one, esp. that you’re a fan. I think you’ll enjoy her acting. I’d be really curious to know what you think of the film as a whole, compared to your reading experience.

    Arti

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  8. I have read the book and haven’t seen the film. I found the first half of the book very hard going, but a dear friend told me to push on to the end, which I did and I am glad I did. I read it without knowing the ending and I was shocked horrified and amazed. I would love you to read it and write a review.

    Racquel

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    Racquel,

    Thanks for the motivation! Well, I’ll leave it on my TBR list then. But I think it would be easier if you watch the film and review it on your blog. I’d be interested to read that. 😉

    Arti

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  9. I read the book several years ago and was very struck by it. At the heart of it lies the question of whether children are products of nurture or nature. Eva struggles with desperate guilt for not really liking her son, and the couple’s inability to get proper help for Kevin is also part of that awkwardness around him (as opposed to his sister, who is always extremely lovable, and that makes the situation worse). But the novel also suggests that Kevin was born with an evil streak, something innate in him provokes him to act the way he does. Naturally the dilemma is never resolved, which is partly what makes the book so powerful. It IS a powerful read, and deeply unsettling (and on a different note, Shriver tends to overwrite the first 60-70 pages of any novel, I think, which makes the beginning feel laboured), but worth reading if you ever get the chance.

    I actually read that Shriver wrote it when she was considering whether to become a mother or not. She was terrified of giving birth to this ‘other’ being and having responsibility for his or her life. What if it all went wrong? And so she wrote the book of the worst case scenario.

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    litlove,

    Thank you for an insightful perspective on the book. This is what I was wondering as I watched the movie. I knew the author must meant more than just this. As I wrote in the review, those issues were exactly the expectations I had when I stepped into the theatre. But I was at a loss when they were not being dealt with in a deeper level, except the ubiquitous stunned and despondent look of a helpless mother, and the evil stare and emotionless face of a psychotic son. I mean, the film is a gripping suspense/horror/thriller, but I was seeking for something more.

    As an ‘art-house’ indie film lover myself, I’m afraid the bland, stunned look directly facing a camera for a long, static take has almost become a visual cliché for me.

    Arti

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  10. Arti, as you so often do, you’ve introduced me to a book/film I’ve not heard of. Reading your review and the comments, I was reminded of the reaction that so often comes after a particularly tragic event, like a school shooting. “We never expected it… we never would have guessed… he was such a good boy.”

    But sometimes, people do look back and see the signs. And there is the issue – how can we dare to see the evil in front of us, and how can we dare to deal with it once it’s become apparent? It sounds as though this mother was acting very much like someone with symptoms of serious illness, hoping that if she just ignored it, it would go away.

    It can be such a fine line, that runs between normal and abnormal. Yes, little boys will pull the wings off flies, or whatever, and that’s just what little boys (and some girls) will do. Often it’s nothing more than boredom or curiosity. But when does it move from that to something more – hitting an animal too much and too hard, raging in anger when losing at a game, and so on.

    If I were confronted with such a situation, I might have a bland, stunned look on my face as well. In any event, I might read this, but I don’t think I’d want to see the film. (And that makes me wonder – does my turning away from the film suggest I might be more willing than I like to think to turn away from such behavior in real life?)

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    1. I feel very much this way. In my life, there have been things I just could not manage, and had to ignore. If you are lucky to live long enough, things that you have ignored can become more manageable, and thats if you’re lucky and if you’ve developed means to access more space to deal with them. and its more a matter of space than anything, because most of us are confined to very tight narrow ‘minds’ that can expand over time. I loved this movie.

      .
      David,

      Thank you for sharing your view with us.

      Arti

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    2. Linda,

      What you said here can be captured by Kevin’s Dad, with the ‘boys will be boys’ kind of mentality. He’s also good natured, so he thinks the best of people and readily forgives any misdeeds. Now, this would deem unacceptable for “Tiger Mom”. Unfortunately, both parents are no tigers. It’s effective dramatic irony because the audience knows more about Kevin’s sinister schemes than the Dad… who, alas, becomes a victim too at the end. As a viewer, I was disheartened to see not much communication goes on between the parents. It just makes one feel frustrated all the more.

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  11. I have not seen the movie yet, but have finished the first 100 or so pages of the book. My sister saw the movie and it appears that the book goes into greater detail about the characters. I am taking notes on things that strike me while reading the book. My first note is posted here: http://thisismethenblog.blogspot.com/2012/03/underfear.html

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    Faunya,

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing with us the link to your review.

    Arti

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  12. Thanks so much for your review on the movie. A few co-workers of mine at Dish told me how creepy this movie is and I should rent it. I just got it in the mail yesterday from Blockbuster @Home which was a pretty quick delivery. Hopefully I get a chance to sit down and watch it this weekend, if not I got some time next week. Luckily I don’t have to return it so soon. I really want to read the book because books are always better. I’ll let you know once I do!

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    1. Anar,

      Welcome! And I hope you’ll come back and share with us your thoughts. Apparently, from the commenters who have read the book, it could well be a deeper exploration of the issues.

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  13. Just watched it this weekend – and honestly, I thought it was terrible. It shed no light on a “real” situation that exists today – but instead was two-hours of non-sensical faux-artiste claptrap that rendered not a single authentic moment or real character. That acting was terrible – Swinton was a one-note, vacant joke, I wanted to punch John C. Reilly, and the kids playing Kevin were unrealistic demon-children. Yet there were some tiny moments where you thought “Okay – they’re going to explore these characters/this relationship more” but they never did. It leads me to believe the book must’ve been much less shallow and more fleshed-out, and some friends who have read it confirm that and praise the book. The movie – not so much.

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    1. David,

      Thanks for sharing your view on this film. I really have nothing more to add, you’ve said it clearly. Just a few days ago I stumbled upon Rex Reed’s review of the film, he gave it 0/4. For those who wish to see the issues dealt with in a deeper manner should just stick with the book.

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