Wednesday, January 25, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin
seen @ Lincoln Plaza Cinema, New York NY

I recently saw a commercial from European television - I forget which country, but it's the kind of ad that would never, ever get shown in America. A father and son are in a supermarket shopping. The son is maybe about four or five years old. The son wants to buy candy or some other kind of sweet, but Dad says no, and the kid throws a five-alarm-fire tantrum like you wouldn't believe. He's yelling and screaming and kicking things and generally raising a ruckus, and from the look on Dad's face, you can tell he's powerless to fully control his son when he's like this. And that's when we find out what this ad is for: Surprise! It's an ad for condoms!

Now even I'm willing to admit that that may be a bit unfair, but I also think it's indisputable that many people enter parenthood thinking it'll be more pleasant than it actually is. I dealt with this subject when I wrote about The 400 Blows, and in a way, We Need to Talk About Kevin is that movie from the mother's perspective.

One of the great Philosophy 101 thought experiments posits the question: what would you do with Adolf Hitler as an infant, knowing what he'll grow up to become? There's an implication within that question that suggests some people are simply born evil, but of course, one can't detect that. In Kevin, we're led to believe that the title character is indeed bad to the bone, and there's nothing Tilda Swinton's character, his mother, can do to change it.

Would I kill Hitler as a baby - assuming, of course, I had concrete evidence that this was, indeed, the child who would grow up to be that man? Probably not. I mean, c'mon, how can anyone kill a baby? I might opt to do something like keep Hitler's parents apart; make sure they never meet (as long as we're talking about time travel anyway). Or perhaps I'd steal him and bring him to America and raise him as a completely different person with no knowledge of where he came from.

As creatures of free will, we have the capacity to choose to do good or evil. The idea that anyone can be born bad can make for good fiction, as is the case with Kevin, but it smacks too much of predestination for it to be plausible in real life. 

But let's stick with the movie's premise: that someone can be born evil. In Kevin, Eva, Kevin's mom, has a complete inability to connect with Kevin, practically from his birth. As an infant, he always cries whenever she tries to pick him up. (There's a great moment where we see Eva standing next to construction workers drilling into the street just so she can hear something other than the sound of Kevin crying.) As he gets older, Kevin seems to deliberately antagonize Eva, yet he gets along fine with his father, Franklin, who isn't convinced there's a problem with his son. Any kind of medical condition is ruled out, and there's no Omen-type of supernatural cause, either (it's not that kind of film).

When Kevin does the awful thing he eventually does, blame falls at Eva's feet. Is that fair? If Kevin was in fact, born bad, was there anything Eva could've done about it - except kill him? But how could she have known for sure? How could anyone know? If nature can't be changed, if who we are is determined from the day we're born, then conscience and accountability have no place. We can do what we like and not fear consequences because we're not responsible for our actions. Perhaps Kevin realizes this, because when he does that awful thing, he shows no remorse for it, nor is he able to rationalize it. Eva, however, still suffers the consequences, which is where the heart of this film's tragedy lies.


  1. Ahah, that ad sounds funny! European commercials are far wittier than American ones I think.

    I'm very curious about this film though it sounds like a hard one to watch. The actor Ezra somebody who plays Kevin kind of has that mysterious almost sinister look to him, even the trailer gives me chills. Sounds like Tilda gave a great performance again here, so do you think she was snubbed by the Academy?

  2. Absolutely, though it was one of those years where someone good was gonna get let off no matter who got picked for Best Actress.

  3. I can't wait to see this movie. It's one of a small handful that I'm genuinely excited about.

  4. One thing I neglected to mention is that 'Kevin' is very arty: non-linear storytelling, unusual cinematography (including out-of-focus shots - there's quite a few of those), jump cuts, etc. The first third of the movie indulges in this a lot, but eventually it settles into something a little bit more conventional (though not by much). Just so you know.


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