We Need to Talk About Kevin is already playing in NYC; it opens today in LA, Chicago, Houston and Phoenix and is rolling out nationwide. This review of the film was originally published on December 22, 2011. For full Oscars coverage and commentary by its reviewer, Fr. Jake Martin, visit our special Oscars season blog, Movie Minister.
Sometimes Zuzu’s petals are all you have to hold onto. That’s the underlying message of We Need to Talk about Kevin, Lynne Ramsey’s remarkable allegory on the transcendent nature of relationships. At first glance, it would seem that Kevin is yet another installment in the pantheon of post-modern films intent upon assaulting the human desire to give meaning to the world. Indeed, Kevin is a relentless film that gives its audience few opportunities to come up for air from the depths of anguish to which it plummets.
Yet it is in those infrequent instances of relief, conversion and mercy that the film finds its identity and direction. Kevin is a story of hope for a new millennium, an It’s a Wonderful Life in the age of school shootings and planes crashing into buildings — a world-weary world that has been bombarded by nihilistic themes in their narratives for the better part of a century. It is a world where any attempts to offer a message of mercy, conversion and redemption must be done deftly and authentically, because at the end of the day, sometimes the community won’t rally around you and more often than not Mr. Potter carries the day.
So we must find our Grace in the minuscule, and it is in these brief moments of consolation, these shafts of light under the door, that Kevin provides the deft sucker punch to the, by now, standard narrative benchmarks of despair, emptiness and futility which permeate contemporary film.
The film follows the relationship between a mother and son, Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Kevin (played as a teenager by Ezra Miller and as a child by Jasper Newell) through a pastiche of sequences spanning the course of Kevin’s first eighteen years. Eva repeatedly tries and fails to create a bond with her son according to traditional societal expectations. Despite the fact that Eva is a travel writer of particular renown, she is bound by an understanding of mother/child relationships that do not correspond with her own relationship with her son.
Playing the part
Eva is attempting to play the part of ‘mommy’ as defined by popular culture; the cooing, gooey, all-encompassing ubiquitousness to her child. This model of motherhood — so deeply rooted as it is in the biological — doesn’t leave much room for aberration, such that any rejection by the child becomes an indictment of the mother’s entire existence. Eva can only play at being ‘mommy’, and so when Kevin refuses her attempts to breastfeed and is only appeased by the presence of his affable father, played by John C. Reilly, her whole world crashes down around her and her value as a person comes into question.
As Kevin develops, he refuses to be potty-trained, mocks Eva and rejects her attempts at physical affection. Ironically he becomes a miniature doppelganger of her, all sharp angles and androgynous countenance lying in direct contrast to the lovably rounded and craggy features of his father. Outward appearances of mother and son match their steely interiority as neither suffers fools gladly and both abhor artifice and sentimentality.
When the teenage Kevin surprisingly assents to a mother/son “date,” Eva is hopeful for the opportunity to cultivate a deeper relationship. Unfortunately, Eva either doesn’t know or refuses to know what a more meaningful relationship with her son would look like; thus when their dinner begins with her asking him how school is going, Kevin immediately shuts her down, offering up a clichéd mother/son dialogue full of rote questions and deadened responses. Kevin’s reaction is an indictment of both Eva and audience’s expectations and their desire for his complicity in perpetrating the fraud.
Kevin is neither rational nor articulate enough to identify his desire, that is, to have an authentic and fully realized relationship with his mother. Eva is entirely bound by the expectations of a culture that fetishizes the “mommy” and insists upon a particular quality and dynamic in order for relationships to be healthy and normative.
Moments of grace
The moments of Grace are, as they should be, not in moments like the dinner scene but in the unexpected. When the child Kevin is sick and nuzzles close to his mother as she reads, his father comes to the door and is rejected in favor of his mother, the look on Eva’s face is one of wonder and delight.
But the two most significant and poignant moments are found at the end of the film, when the 18-year-old Kevin, two years into a prison sentence for a heinous incident at his high school (yes, it’s as bad as you think), responds to his mother’s query as to why he did what he did. He answers, “I used to think I knew why, and now I’m not so sure.” This small act of hesitant humility is followed by Kevin’s embrace of his mother which can only be likened to the embrace received by that infamous scriptural progeny upon his arrival home.
Swinton gives an outstanding performance, somehow managing to repeatedly convey implacability and vulnerability in the same moment. Reilly is typically wonderful in a thankless role, while both juvenile actors evince a low-grade rage that never moves into complete disconnection or full-blown psychosis. Swinton is collecting a bevy of early plaudits and nominations, as well she should. Still, the film should not be overshadowed by its lead’s performance, as is often the case with female Oscar nominees. All of the performances are secondary to an urgently compelling narrative that is both agonizing to witness and impossible to look away from.
We Need to Talk about Kevin in fact needs to be talked about, as what it is attempting to do by marrying the darkest, most nihilistic components of contemporary cinema with a redemptive message is groundbreaking. Kevin examines both our darkest moments and those slivers of Grace that sustain us. The film explores and identifies the hope to be found in the ashes of Ground Zero and in the wake of Columbine while never once attempting to sugarcoat the real darkness and danger that exist in our world.
Ultimately what it winds up giving us is perhaps the most important truth of Christianity, namely that God is the hope to be found in the midst of the smoke and ashes.