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We Need To Talk About Kevin – Technically brilliant, Ethically vapid


Boys will be boys



We Need To Talk About Kevin – Lynne Ramsay


This film is beautifully shot, powerfully acted and brilliantly edited. It is also morally and emotionally empty. Ethically vapid. Absolutely none of the profoundly important, deeply perplexing issues posed by the narrative is addressed, explored or remotely illuminated. Instead we have hints and implications serving a relentless appeal for us to sympathise with Kevin’s mother Eva (Tilda Swinton).

Even if you haven’t read the book, or gleaned it from the trailers, the time-fractured narrative very soon signals that the grown-up Kevin has been involved in an appalling event from which we cut back and forth to his birth and childhood.

From fairly pointless opening scenes which I assume are supposed to establish Eva as a kind of new age free spirit we follow her into marriage with Franklin (John C Reilly), to the birth of Kevin and through to the disturbing behaviour he exhibits from the earliest age. Eventually Lucy is born with Franklin’s obvious participation but without his agreement. Lucy’s arrival widens Kevin’s scope of people to manipulate and torment.

The issues are all there: is Kevin mentally sick or simply instinctively evil? Why are such sociopath’s almost exclusively male and is their socio-pathology a function of nature or nurture? If nurture what are and what should be, the relative responsibilities of Eva as his mother and Franklin as his father, in responding to his pathological behaviour and developing sense of masculinity.

What makes these issues so perplexing and disturbing is precisely that they appear to defy any kind of rational explanation. We are driven to the relative comfort of the materialist causal explanation of an ‘illness’ by the philosophical paradox of finding a ‘rational’ explanation of a profoundly irrational act. And embracing the concept of instinctive evil not only seems archaic applied to a 16 year-old killer, but almost shameful in the case of an infant and toddler. Our unease is deepened further when we see the meticulous preparation and thoughtful planning that went into the actions. An explosion of uncontrollable rage would not lessen the tragedy but we can sort of comprehend it. But the systematic, calm, premeditated execution of men women and children, chills the soul and transcends any known moral boundaries.

Let me be clear: I know this film isn’t a documentary in psychology or sociology. I did not expect Lionel Shriver who wrote the book or Lynne Ramsay who wrote the screenplay and directed, to answer any of the above questions. However if you choose to create a work of Art, book or film set in this context then it seems to me you have a responsibility to take the issues seriously enough to at least try to address them.

All we get instead is a whole series of emotionally saturated scenes with little hints, sometimes offensive, and a culpable passivity that amounts to no more than a hapless ‘what can I do?’ To which the only answer has to be: “well I don’t quite know – but something!” This is a film about a deeply troubled family that contains no rows, no arguments, no anger. All is passive aggression – including Kevin. When the almost ‘saintly’ Eva does lash out and breaks Kevin’s arm she gets and thoroughly deserves his escalating contempt when she makes a grovelling apology. I’m not advocating a facile ‘clip round the ear’ or ‘give him the strap’ methodology that notoriously does not work. But children should see and learn to understand anger when anger is appropriate. Even if they are on the receiving end of it. In fact Eva is the most passive aggressive character I have seen in a film for a long time.

Objectionable? Well there is a little flirtatious innuendo about Autism trivially hinted at by the fact that Kevin appears to be good at maths. It is deeply offensive to hint at the stereotypical myth that Autism is possibly linked to violent pathological behaviour: and aesthetic cowardice to insinuate it not say it.

As a man I have to take seriously the statistics on marital violence, child abuse, and yes random massacres. Yet it is often ignored that as a matter of biological necessity every man who behaves this way had a mother as well as a father. Here again, Ramsay and I assume Shriver, invite us to blame Franklin because of his frankly ludicrously trite dismissal of the difficulties Eva is facing and his fatuous assumption that it’s not Kevin’s behaviour but Eva’s paranoia that is the real problem. So Saint Eva has not only had her free spirit stolen by marriage to an apparent emotional idiot i.e a ‘typical’ man; her daily life made a misery by a sociopathic son; but all her misery is a figment of her paranoid personality. And just to complete this baleful picture of men we find of course that Lucy is victimised as well.

Any man who has watched his wife give birth doesn’t need any prompting by Ms Shriver or Ms Ramsay to have a deep respect for what it is to be a woman and become a mother. Despite the comfortable stereotype of the father who thinks a bit of bad behaviour in the couple of hours before the kids go to bed equates to the struggle his wife has had on her own over the preceding 12-14 hours; there are plenty of fathers only too worried and concerned about such pressures on their wives. Ramsay on the one hand suggests that Franklin is such a concerned husband and father and then portrays him as behaving like the insensitive male cliché so dear to some feminist mythology.

The basic issue is as simple to state as it is difficult to resolve: if Kevin is sick – then he needs treatment; if he is evil then he has to be fought – for his own sake for the language of evil offers a distinction between hatred of the acts and hatred of the perpetrator. Of course both strategies are difficult with no guarantee of success but they are at least actions undertaken with a purpose in mind. We never see any outside professional help sought or given throughout. And as a final nail in Franklin’s masculine coffin the first time in the film professional advice is advocated is when he suggests that Eva is the one who needs it.

We Need To Talk About Kevin
 is deeply depressing, not because of its subject or content but because of the helpless, hopeless, pervasive passivity of its artistic ‘vision’. Its snide half-truths and unpleasant innuendos represent lazy thought and hypocritical writing. I cannot remember any film so artistically schizophrenic: superb technical and acting skills put to the service of a thoroughly meretricious and at times unpleasant narrative.

I strongly recommended you see Tyrannosaurus because despite the depressing ugliness of its context, through artistic insight and aspiration it enlightens, clarifies and even lifts the spirits in an odd way. It is the complete absence of any of these qualities in We Need To Talk About Kevin that means I would not recommend it to anyone.

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