Posted by: gdevi | June 13, 2012

Movie Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2012)

It might not be inaccurate to state that almost all over the world–except Texas, perhaps–children–that is little people under 18 yrs old– are considered innocent. In the US, for instance, we have different judicial standards to try those under the age of 18 for serious crimes such as manslaughter and murder because of their presumed innocence, primarily due to the processes in the path of brain development and maturation, and consequent individuated and social personhood. Lynne Ramsey’s movie *We Need to Talk about Kevin* forces us to ask ourselves, is this distinction necessary? Shouldn’t Kevin be tried as an adult for the crimes he committed? As my daughter who watched the movie observed without knowing the David Byrne song, Kevin is a “psycho-killer.”  The movie presents him as one. Ezra Miller, who plays the teenager Kevin, and Jasper Newell who plays the seven-eight year old Kevin both play the character with an eye towards making us cringe inside every time he moves his eyes or opens his mouth. The tendentious camera angles from down below and beside your face showing the boy chew his food or bite his nails, as well as the extreme close-ups of his facial features are calculated to fill us with revulsion towards this boy. The almost oedipal scenes with the boy walking in on his mother performing oral sex on his father, his inability to be toilet-trained at seven or eight years, his sexually aggressive conversations with his mother, and his “date” with his mother as a teenager are also meant to dispel any associations we might have about children being innocent and pure. This Kevin is cut in the mold of the “children” in Golding’s *Lord of the Flies.* It is also very English. Think Doris Lessing’s *The Fifth Child.* The mother who says, “Mum and dad were very happy until you came along.”  Or *Clockwork Orange.* But while Golding’s and Lessing’s children seem metaphysically evil, and Kevin’s story takes place in the American suburbia, the source of Kevin’s destructive instincts are variously attributed to a messed-up mother, an indulgent and ineffectual father, television’s fascination with criminals, school killings, and even violent boyish games such as playing with bows and arrows; the only book in Kevin’s room is *Robin Hood.* The Anglo-American collaboration, however, is still indecisive as to why Kevin does the things he does.  Because the fact remains that there are many many children in this world of ours who grow up in more unfit households than this family’s who do not make the choice to be destructive that Kevin does. But the movie underscores its anti-child point-of view in the scene  with the mother telling the son in a juvie facility soon to be transplanted to a prison for adults that he would get tried as a a juvenile and with his mind allegedly out on prozac, he would get back out in a couple of years. Then she hugs him and kisses him.  Every criminal has a mother, as the media never fails to remind us, in its more pious moments.

The story is told from the mother’s perspective, Eva Khatchadourian, obviously a first or second generation immigrant woman–in a crucial scene the boy asks his mother to turn off what sounds like Cossack music, something that Aram Khatchaturian would compose!– a travel and adventure writer–the movie opens with the tomato festival in Spain or Italy–the writhing human bodies like so many worms splattered with red tomato juice equated with the blood of her son’s murders that symbolically taints Eva–who is shown early on as conflicted about her pregnancy. While the other pregnant women take off their clothes and get ready for their lamaze class, Eva runs away from the room, obviously uncomfortable with the scene.  Pregnancy creates many physical and psychological changes in women, that is true, but this movie shows conception and pregnancy as a positively ugly and terrifying experience; not even *Rosemary’s Baby* comes close to the darkness of this womb.   For instance, the scene where Eva cooks eggs with the shells all broken and mixed in with the whites and the yolk and eats it like an automaton has no purpose other than to revolt us, to turn our stomachs. [Personally, I think this movie couldn’t have arrived at a worse time in the US political debates about women’s reproductive rights.  This movie slam-dunk delivers every anti-woman and anti-child law neatly into the lawmakers’ hands.] The fact that she wants to be a mother while not really liking what it means to be a mother is shown clearly and cleverly in the scene where she drives through a street filled with children in halloween costumes, little spooks out to scare her, while Buddy Holly’s “Everyday it’s getting closer/ going faster than a roller-coaster/ Love like yours will surely come my way” in the background, the desperate pleading self-assurance of a woman who cannot love children. They are little spooks to her. Since every criminal anywhere feels free to blame his or her mother (the sountrack ends with “Nobody’s Child”), we see many instances of Eva’s bad mothering; her inability to console the baby when he cries, her frustration trying to teach him, her anxiety that he is autistic, her coaching of him, her hostility towards cleaning him when he soils his diaper, and finally moving to physically hurting him. Since the movie refrains from offering us any glimpse into any other socio-psychological contexts or contacts for Kevin other than his immediate family, we are led to conclude that his mother’s behavior did have something to do with the way he turned out.

John C. Reilly plays Kevin’s father, Franklin, a seemingly affectionate husband and father though one must observe strictly from the point of view of scripting and characterization that it is somewhat tendentious to show parents having sex in front of young children; nothing good usually comes of it, and there have been volumes written on the topic by folks who have studied these things seriously. You can tell that Kevin has zero respect for his father, though he jollies him along in his adversarial relationship with his mother. Still, the scenes with Reilly have a certain helplessness and pathos to them; a man unable to stand up to his son or to his wife.

Which really brings me to what I found most interesting about this film, which is that this is a movie that shows the heavy hand of the director. I found the blood symbols fatiguing after a while, and the thriller-like-structure of the movie–what happened to Kevin?–sort of predictable because it is easy to guess what he did from all the cutting and splicing of the past into the present. I found the editing of this film particularly disruptive, the almost transition-less quick cuts from past to present and back might be indicative of the goopy time that Eva inhabits internally, but it still feels structured, and thus sort of artificial. This is ideally a movie that should make us feel very very very sad, but it does not. I think that has happened primarily because we cannot relate to any of these characters, except perhaps the father, and none of them are likable. None of the adult characters in this movie demonstrate a moral center to their personality, an awareness of some dimension other than themselves, which is what usually stops us from frivolously destroying the world that supports us. And to explain this away as some sort of a teenage paean to “nothing,” as Kevin’s speech does, is bizarre. I don’t understand why at all the decision was made to characterize the adults in this movie as inhabiting places along this sort of despicable and helpless spectrum.  I found the scene with Kevin talking on television about the media’s and “our” fascination with “people like him,” really annoying; I don’t know why the director assumes that “we” are fascinated with the “fifteen-seconds-of-fame-criminals.”  Speak for yourself. Many of us do not have any snack-time-fascination towards any of these things. Juvenile delinquency is a grave social problem that needs to be studied and addressed and resolved, sooner rather than later. This sort of lip-service does not help anything, in my opinion.

I want to end with a beautiful thing that I watched yesterday. I was over at my daughter’s school waiting to turn in her soccer forms for seventh grade when a mother and a son walked in.  The mother looked tired and overworked, as if she had just gotten out of a late factory shift; it was maybe 8:30 in the morning. The boy was perhaps 14 years old, dressed in unclean jeans and tattered shoes and a t-shirt with plenty of skulls on it. He had the beginning of a mustache and beautiful black curly hair escaped from inside the dirty woollen cap that he was wearing.  He had a sullen expression on his face and kept fidgeting on his feet. The mother patiently explained to the secretary that he had failed history and she wanted him to be in summer school and that he was not registered yet. She said that she went into the online system and could not find the history lessons for him. The secretary asked them to wait and went inside to get the principal.  It was incredible; the principal came out — he obviously knew the young man — extending his arm out for a handshake. The principal held out his hand. The boy stepped back. He did not offer his hand. His mother looked like she was going to cry. The principal kept holding out his hand looking straight at the boy. After what felt like an eternity, the boy shook the principal’s hand. Then he said in a low voice, “I am wearing the wrong t-shirt.” The principal, a big pleasant man in a pink t-shirt said, “Yeah, I noticed. I don’t know how you can get away with it, buddy!” They all laughed. You could see the relief and happiness on the mother’s face. The principal told the mother where to find the lessons online, and asked her if she could bring him to school at 8:30 the following day. Mother ( and son) left with quiet relief.


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