Arts and Culture

Mother of the beast

Peter Bradshaw

Can bad children happen to good parents, or do they reveal their parents' flaws? This is the question raised in We Need to Talk about Kevin.

What happens when bad children happen to good parents? Does it mean they are not, in fact, as good as they had imagined themselves to be?

With these questions, British director Lynne Ramsay has created a nihilist tale of guilt and horror. Working with co-writer Rory Kinnear, she has adapted Lionel Shriver’s prizewinning 2003 novel, We Need to Talk about Kevin, about a woman whose teenage son has committed a Columbine-style massacre.

This adaptation raises a subject that has eluded other films on the same subject, such as Gus Van Sant’s Elephant or indeed Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine: the aftermath. Kevin cannot be tried as an adult. So who, in the end, will wind up getting the blame for a teenage boy’s psychopathic rampage? Why, the mother of course.

Tilda Swinton plays Eva, a former free spirit and city-dweller who has found herself having to move to the suburbs because of her husband Franklin (John C Reilly) and his breezy insistence that the city is no place to bring up children. They have two: obnoxious smartmouth Kevin (Ezra Miller) and sweet younger sister Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich).

Her success as a travel writer originally meant they could afford a handsome family home, but we join the story as Eva, her life in ruins, is living on her own in a scuzzy bungalow, a pill-popping drinker.

Paying for her son’s crimes
Kevin’s grotesque crime means her car and porch are always vandalised and she cannot leave the house without being screamed at or assaulted.

She must spend the rest of her life trying, vainly, to make up for a crime for which she is not responsible and which she does not understand.

She is simultaneously at the centre of this event and at its margins.

So Eva tries to find out whether there was one key, terrible misjudgment or failing of hers as a mother that set her son on the road to murder.

Created by a monster

Swinton portrays Eva as a ghost, haunting her past and haunted by it. She is gaunt, hollow-eyed, stunned: her eyes are almost blind, as if she can see only memories. And perhaps it is not that she created Kevin, but that Kevin created her. Eva’s only identity now is that of someone who gave birth to horror.

When Kevin’s parents break off arguing one night to tell him, patronisingly, that he might not understand the “context” to their quarrel, he sneers: “I am the context.”

Plenty of kids act up. Did Eva go wrong? Was it the bedtime stories about Robin Hood that encouraged his interest in archery? Or in dangerously teasing Kevin about being obviously impressed with the big photo of her in the bookstore window? Or did he just generally inhale her miasma of resentment, her own physiological disenchantment with motherhood itself?

An extreme parable
And what does an independent-minded career woman do when she is landed with a nasty little boy, precisely the kind of smug competitive male she has spent her whole life trying to subdue and surpass? What American Psycho was to consumerism, We Need to Talk about Kevin is to both sexism and feminism—a brilliantly extreme parable that is operatically pessimistic.

In the end, the audience is left with the same unanswerable question: What made Kevin do it? Nature or nurture? A mother supplies both.—

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