We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

When it’s on: Monday, 25 May (9.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

Being a parent isn’t easy, unless perhaps you’re a member of the royal family and your media comments about sleepless nights because of baby are transferred from nanny’s words. Whilst there is a mass of stuff you can read about the process of giving birth, what you can do to help as a new father, etc, I don’t remember finding much to do with how the new arrival affects your family, dealing with the psychology, essentially how to suddenly flip your role from being an adult with your own life to the sudden impact of turning into a carer, and being happy doing so. I don’t know if that makes a lot of sense. When we had our son, I admit I was unprepared for it emotionally and took some time to get used to the idea. I liked the life I had beforehand and felt some resentment at it becoming something else whilst having no one to focus that towards. As I said, not easy.

I expect it’s like that for many new parents, and fortunately there appear to have been few ill effects as our boy has transformed into a fifteen year old with some definite teenage surly qualities but, more importantly, signs of becoming a fully rounded human being that I put down more to good luck than our high quality nurturing skills. But I will confess to feeling many of the insecurities experienced by Eva (Tida Swinton) in We Need to Talk About Kevin, which is where the sense of fortune comes into play. What if our son hadn’t been so good? What if he had shown signs, from a very early age, of being a demon child? What if he had apparently exerted every effort in making my life – or my wife’s – a living hell? What if his behaviour led to the slow break-up of our marriage as we failed to talk about what do do with him? What if all this was building to some awful, tragic event that left me attempting to pick up the pieces afterwards, hated by a community that saw me – as the parent – to blame for what happened?

We Need to Talk About Kevin is about the aftermath of the ‘event’ and Eva’s efforts to deal emotionally with it, more importantly her survival when there’s nothing left that’s worth surviving for. She gets up one morning and finds that someone has splashed red paint all over the front of her house and car. She walks past a couple of people, one of whom strikes her viciously. In the shopping mall, she avoids another shopper and then discovers that all the eggs in her trolley have been broken; she pays for them as they are. It’s a hellish existence, punctuated by sleeping pills, alcohol and of course memories, endless memories, the flashbacks of her life up to this point replayed in a pointless loop in which she tries to find some meaning. She realises that she was happy before she met Franklin (John C Reilly) and happy too for a time after. Then they had Kevin, moved from the city to a mansion in the suburbs. Things start to go wrong. As a baby, Kevin does nothing but cry for her and she stands with the pram by a pneumatic drill to drown out his screams. Later, he refuses to engage with her in any way. Toilet training is a nightmare of non-co-operation and exasperation, leading to a moment when, in a spark of anger, she throws him against a wall, breaking his arm, something he uses against her from then on. The only moment in their entire time together that things improve is when she’s reading him a story about the legend of Robin Hood, which sparks his interest in archery, something you just know will have terrible consequences later. They have another child, Celia, who becomes an object of further dislike and jealousy for Kevin, now a teenager (played by Ezra Miller) whose every comment is a barbed spike of hate and bile. Celia loses her pet hamster, then an eye. Both are put down as accidents.

It’s a difficult film to like, It’s far too uncomfortable for that, just like the book by Lionel Shriver (which I’ve started reading) has a gnawing, compelling quality but isn’t something I can imagine recommending to people who want some good bedtime reading. The project spent some years in gestation, attached to Lynne Ramsay before being made as the novel was seen as pretty much unfilmable (it’s told as a series of letters from Eva to Franklin), though the end results are impressive indeed. The principal cast members are all superb. Swinton, best known for playing icy characters, like her performance in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (and being by some distance the best thing in that surprisingly underwhelming adaptation), knows to put any change in outward emotion at a premium, making Eva the sort of character where everything is happening beneath the surface. A tall actor, Swinton does all she can to recede into the background, avoiding any human contact because she knows that all eyes hate her, making hers a deliberately awkward piece of work. Reilly plays Franklin as the oblivious, ‘good’ husband, having no idea what Kevin’s like because he’s being played by his son all along. It’s a revelatory turn by Miller as Kevin, made to look like the male equivalent of Swinton’s character so that, when he commits his act of hate, it’s as though he’s done it all for her, like she’s his audience, his chip off her old block.

The colour red features prominently throughout, from the Spanish tomato festival Eva enjoys in her pre-marital days, looking like she’s bathing in blood, through to the splashes of red paint on her property and the Ketchup sandwich Kevin fixes for himself, all pre-figuring the deed for which both he and she will become notorious. The use of sound is also noteworthy, screams entering the background soundtrack all too often to outline that what Kevin did is never far from the surface of Eva’s thoughts, also the noise of water sprinklers for reasons that become horribly apparent.

Incidentally, I watched The Babadook for the first time over the weekend. This too is a film about parenting, the difficulties that come with raising a troublesome child, and whilst they’re very different movies in terms of content both focus on the subject and play on the fears of being responsible for a kid. It’s hard. And it can go horribly wrong, often enough through no real fault of your own. After all, we’re all flawed in some way; we just have to hope those flaws don’t transfer into the behaviour of our offspring.

We Need to Talk About Kevin: ****