We Need to Talk About Kevin
On Tuesday, April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed thirteen of their fellow students at Columbine High School — and injured twenty-one more — before turning their weapons on themselves. Even considering only incidents with similarly random, undirected violence, it was neither the first nor the last school shooting. And yet, Columbine has become synonymous with this sort of slaughter. The looming question is always “why?” and — in the all-too-frequent absence of an answer from the murderers themselves — it’s easy and convenient to assign blame to the parents.
But this is convenient only if you ignore the fact that these parents are also among the bereaved; these are people, too, and not just scapegoats to bear the blame for their children’s actions. It’s this question of responsibility that writer and director Lynne Ramsay addresses in her film, We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Eva Katchadourian (Tilda Swinton) was a successful travel writer; her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) is a photographer. And then they had Kevin (Rocky Duer as an infant, Jasper Newell as a child, and Ezra Miller as a teenager). We watch in flashbacks as he grows up, leading up to and through the day that changes everyone’s life forever.
We also see the aftermath; Eva moves to a tiny house where she spends her free time cleaning the red paint thrown onto the front door and porch to shame her. She takes a menial job typing and filing in a travel agency, which hardly keeps her mind from wandering back to the past.
We slip back and forth between (roughly) three timelines: Eva now, Kevin’s childhood, and the day of the attack itself. At times the cuts are so jumbled it’s hard to tell which video and which audio come from which section; they aren’t even always from the same one. All the narratives are fractured — lives are shattered — and we run around and around with Eva, trying to make sense of it all.
Kevin was, to put it bluntly, a self-centered, manipulative little monster, and he was like that from a very early age. True, Eva never really bonded with him — she seemed uneasy about the concept of motherhood even before he was born — but she can’t be accused of not trying. And indeed when her daughter Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich) was born, Eva was a perfectly good — if somewhat distant — mother to her. No, at worst it’s a combination of something being terribly wrong with Kevin, and Eva inadvertently letting it fester.
But we also see that nobody really wants to face up to the possibility. Maybe Eva could have been more insistent, but when she talks to doctors about Kevin’s unusual behavior they dismiss her concerns. Kevin is always demonstratively happy with his father — he knows by instinct how to effectively fake what he needs to get what he wants — and so Franklin won’t take Eva’s concerns seriously either.
And eventually, when we see exactly where Kevin is headed, it feels inevitable. What would we have Eva do? What could we ourselves have done in her shoes? It’s horrifying and absurd, but I can’t put the blame on Eva for what Kevin does; who could she have talked to about him?
Worth It: yes, though it may be a harrowing experience.
Bechdel Test: fail.