‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’ or The Devil is a Woman
I find Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk about Kevin to be among the more vexing films I have recently seen. It is a notable contribution to the domestic melodrama, at a time when the genre is besieged by “dramedies” about families with problems that aren’t problems at all. Ramsay’s film shows the bourgeois patriarchal family collapsing in on itself, but its view of the nature of this collapse is highly problematical, to say the least. I have certainly seen films with more negative indictments of the female and female sexuality than portrayed here, but at the moment I cannot recall when. Nor can I think of a film that makes a closer conjunction of sex and death. Nor can I think of a film that trades so much in hyperbole, to the point that the film often looks comic; if comedy is intended, it is for purposes that elude me, making me view this film very suspiciously and with a touch of repulsion.
As is well known at this moment, the film concerns Eva (Tilda Swinton), a popular writer and world-traveler, her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), their apparently psychopathic son Kevin (Ezra Miller), and their young daughter Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich). Kevin, hostile to his mother since birth, commits a massacre at the local high school, then murders his father and sister, resulting in the emotional and financial devastation of the mother. Some have read this film, like the novel on which it is based, as an attempt to understand the wave of schoolhouse murders that have occurred in the United States over the last decades. I find this approach to the film troubling on at least two counts.
First, it is hardly a secret, for anyone genuinely interested, that violence by young people against other young people has occurred among ghettoized racial minorities in the U.S. for many years. The despair of de facto segregation, unchanged since the post-Reconstruction era, is an obvious central factor here, but this murderous violence receives momentary mention on the police-blotter segment of the local evening news and is more or less dropped – “these people” are of little or no consequence, except insofar as their violence affects the white bourgeois population.
The new wave of killings in white middle-class grammar and high schools (Columbine remains the key symbol), an outcome, at the least, of the alienation symptomatic of the decay of late capitalist America, is treated as a horrific, bizarre aberration, the young perpetrators portrayed as “monsters” with little or no connection to the mainstream. Bullying, which seems to be a key factor in these school killings, is a logical consequence of a society based on competition and the belittling of the Other. Works of fiction have thus far taken the view of the mainstream media that this violence is indeed unrepresentative of the U.S., and is, in some sense or other, the product of a fallen world.
Allow me a moment for my own mystical thinking: is it unreasonable simply to say that this violence is a case of the chickens coming home to roost, of the genocidal programs that have been at the root of the creation of the U.S. now appearing in the conduct of the heirs to this now-realized nation? If the young killers in these instances are “psychopaths,” is it not sensible to look at the extent to which the U.S. as a whole creates psychopathy, from team sports that tell children to knock the brains out of their opponents (with fewer and fewer genuflections to “sportsmanship”), to our military culture (I refer not only to the military itself but to an entire culture that embraces military values) that tells children that “losers” won’t be tolerated, that one serves one’s country by becoming a screaming, conscienceless killing machine, and that one needs to transfer the skills of the merciless killer to the business world?
Second, if one indeed approaches We Need to Talk about Kevin as a “diagnosis” of teenage violence, or even if we interpret the film with not so specific a focus, we gain an understanding of our society that does little more than force us yet again to demonize the female.
The film opens with a shot of wispy curtains waving gently in the breeze of an open window at nighttime. The camera slowly, portentously, tracks inward. Children can be heard shouting from some far-off location. It is a gothic moment. The film then cuts to a high-angle shot of a scene at La Tomatina festival in Buñol, Spain, an annual street party celebrating the tomato. The extreme high angle at first portrays the large number of nude or seminude people, pressed closely together, as a writhing, squalid mass covered in a deeply saturated red. The camera tracks slowly downward, then jump-cuts to take us closer still to the chaotic crowd, which is later replicated in a shot of cells writhing under a microscope, anticipating, it seems, Eva’s pregnancy.
As we get close to the Tomatina crowd, we see Eva being raised aloft by several men. She is laughing and thoroughly enjoying herself, although her face changes expression, shifting to a slight look of alarm, as if she anticipates the future. The camera switches to a low angle, giving a slightly funereal sense to her outstretched body. Pieces of tomato fly about in slow motion, sticking to people’s bodies and heads – the effect is unsettling rather than joyful, the moment’s eroticism stripped away through sound-image conjunction, the pieces of tomato calling to mind gore as much as food. We see the revelers wading in a sea of tomato juice – the association with blood is clear, especially as Eva is dropped into the sea of juice, and as the scene cuts to the present, where we see red paint all over a simple, clapboard house as well as a small yellow compact car. Anyone vaguely familiar with the plot of this film will recognize that the prolonged establishing sequence, composed of flashbacks/flashforwards, anticipates a catastrophe involving Eva and her son. But before we get there, the film makes clear its assertions about Eva.
The film cuts to the past, as Eva and Franklin walk down a rainy city street at night. Eva, her long wet hair hanging loose, wears a topcoat, her bare legs kicking playfully through the water pooling near a curb; she seems stoned and “out of it.” Franklin lifts her into his arms. The film cuts to them having sex in a bedroom. Franklin tells her: “Promise me you’ll never go away again.” (The male’s role in this narrative is addressed, but inadequately, about which more shortly). He asks her, referring to birth control, “Is it safe?” She replies in the negative, and when the responsible-sounding male says “Are you sure about this?” Eva is silent, waiting for her passion to be satisfied. Shots of Eva cringing on a sofa in a darkened room dabbed in red, in the post-massacre present, are interspersed with the sequence. The film’s insistence on the sexual urges of the female necessarily associated with holocaust is fairly appalling.
The film then takes us to the “consequence” of Eva’s freewheeling lifestyle, her pregnancy and the birth of her son. Eva is unhappy and uncomfortable in the late stages of her pregnancy, a point made especially clear as she sits with a group of pregnant women, their huge bellies protruding, grotesque nuisances. Is the film a pro-choice ad? Abortion never seems an option as Eva goes through with childbirth, and faces the profound dilemma of wishing that she hadn’t.
At the crux of the film is Eva’s inability to bond with her baby son. Her infant cries endlessly – Eva actually stops her baby carriage by some workmen operating a power drill to get relief from baby Kevin’s screams (or to torment him?). On the Artificial Eye DVD of the film, the actors and filmmakers argue, amazingly (considering all the incongruous, supernatural elements), that Kevin is not supposed to be a sociopathic demon child, and that the problem indeed centers on Eva’s faking affection for Kevin, an issue that the hypersmart child perceives and resents from his earliest moments (I at first assumed that my reading was wrong, and that the film was arguing something deeper about the family unit than what the filmmakers affirm).
The film’s position is not only misogynist but downright ludicrous. A parent’s inability to bond with a child is hardly a revelation; one could approach this material with a trifle more sensitivity, perhaps to suggest that the greatest attempts at authentic affection have little to do with the collapse of the family, and that the parent’s failure might cause her/him profound sadness (an element totally missing here), thus deepening and making more daunting the film’s exploration of its terrain – but we need to deal with the film offered rather than one we might imagine.
The point seems to be that the female’s insensitivity (at one points she yells at uncooperative baby Kevin that she “would rather be in FRANCE!”), and her denial of her problems, lead to the apocalypse of the high school massacre, a signifier for the destruction of America itself. Eva is an erotic woman and a soulless one – one necessarily leads to the other, consistent through the history of patriarchal narrative. Even more, the montage structure that dominates the film’s style seems to exteriorize the chaos of Eva’s mind as she reflects on her life and the tragedy she produced: she is not only insensitive but a bit addled. Like so many characters of the postmodern cinema, Eva is basically lacking in affect; the film assumes, as do many, that the lack of affect is more or less the norm – being otherwise would be downright odd, or at least unhip, so goes contemporary logic among filmmakers and other artists.
The notion that Kevin is not an Omen/Exorcist child is undercut by the evidence – I point this out to emphasize the film’s illogic, but more importantly the extent to which it goes to discredit the female. A monster child who is a curse placed on the family from out of nowhere (or as a vague response to a condition of political/social delegitimation, as was the case with some post-Vietnam/Watergate horror) would make a little more sense, or at least be less egregious, that what Ramsay offers. After all, a baby already so estranged from its mother that it tries (deliberately?), to torment her seems to be demonic. But the emphasis on the mother’s failures is such that such devices are not allowed.
It might be useful to compare We Need to Talk about Kevin to Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. In the former, the female is viewed as an hysteric by other people in the narrative, but one can sense, early in the film, that she is manipulated by her husband for his own interests. We Need to Talk about Kevin is a bit closer in ideology to The Exorcist, with the insistence on the female’s madness, although in Kevin it is one that cannot be treated in time by men. From infancy through early childhood to young adulthood, Kevin harasses his mother with cruel behavior and snide remarks, even when she attempts, however falteringly, to reach out to her son – her punishment is warranted. This is a version of the Bad Seed, only the issue is a woman out of control, rather than awful genes.
The image of the male offers little to balance what the film is up to. Franklin is a dumb oaf (John C. Reilly has long been typecast) easily gulled by his monstrous son. When Franklin buys Kevin a bow and arrow set, complete with Robin Hood cap (after Kevin cuddled up to his mother – for the first time – as she reads to him a story of the hero’s prowess with a bow), there is a sense that Kevin has planned his bloody scenario since he was a toddler. Kevin’s contempt is as much for the doting father as for the cold mother – but what then is the point, and why then is this so much a film about the mother? The casting of Tilda Swinton is problematical, but in sync with the film’s apparent agenda. One of our finest actors, Swinton, with her pale, fragile features and often darting eyes, can too much embody the neurotic. Films such as I Am Love steer her away from this tendency, but We Need to Talk about Kevin fully exploits it.
Then there are the numerous bad aesthetic judgments, such as the use of songs like Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” and the Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” to either tell us how ironic the whole situation is supposed to be, or, worse, inject some laughs that discredit the film entirely. In the age of Tarantino, this sort of thing isn’t surprising, since filmmakers now seem, almost uniformly, not to trust the audience, and to feel superior to it and to their own material. The bad jokes extend in all directions, from the long red nails on the vulgar office supervisor who interviews a destitute Eva, to the jerk who asks her for a dance, tries to look up her skirt, and brutally insults her. The slap to the face and curses from passing women, like Eva’s eating an omelet filled with egg shells (the eggs were smashed at the market), might be ways that the film emphasizes Eva’s acceptance of her punishment were they not such unlikely, poorly thought-through distractions.
I want to return for a moment to the film’s conjunction of eros and death. The Tomatina festival that opens the film is indeed crucial. The sound of vuvuzelas dominate the soundtrack here, but as the sequence proceeds we hear the shouts and cries of women and children, anticipating the bloodshed to come, for which Eva is “guilty” (within her own mind or within the perspective of the film is a very key issue). Later in the film, after the massacre, we see Kevin holding his bow, standing alone in an empty gymnasium, bowing to an unseen, imaginary audience in a strained, presentational moment; the blaring vuvuzelas reappear on the soundtrack. The unfettered sexuality of the female, indeed her attempt at joy, was seldom so clearly portrayed as the undergirding for the mindless destruction of patriarchal bourgeois society.
Endnote: The bow and arrows used by Kevin to annihilate his classmates (the scene showing him rapidly shooting and reloading the bow is chilling) might be seen as primal weapons, emblems of patriarchy passed on, however unconsciously, by the father, perhaps a sensible idea precisely because the father is a stupid ox. That Kevin could kill a gymnasium full of students with a bow seems a bit implausible. But the weapon seems less an inflection of the “traditional” massacre scenario than a genuflection toward the ultrarightist National Rifle Association, with its mantra “Guns don’t kill people – people kill people.”
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He writes often for Film International and other publications. He is presently revisiting the work of Jimi Hendrix, obviously a key icon of that great cultural renaissance of the late 1960s. Hendrix’s accomplishments both as a musician and as a major innovator of studio recording may not as yet be fully appreciated. He represented fully the solipsism of the youth culture (“Up From the Skies,” “If 6 was 9”), but it is hard to think of more radical works than Hendrix’s “The Star Spangled Banner,” the national anthem rendered as jet bombers diving to bring death to Southeast Asia, or “I Don’t Live Today,” a song that Hendrix dedicated, in concert, to Native Americans. And the guitar coda to “Bold as Love” is as exultant as anything in Bach, if only at the level of realized achievement if not absolute technical mastery.