There is no more unsettling thought than the idea that children can be born ‘bad’ and no amount of nurture can bring them ’round again. That for some very unlucky among us, nature just throws up a child that so severely lacks empathy he or she can go on to do terrible, terrible things.
This is the unnerving premise of the film We Need to Talk About Kevin. It is such a chilling idea that makes for brilliant cinema.
When we first wrote about the concept of ‘evil’ children on Mamamia, some of you were outraged at the very thought. That we were giving nature too much credit and not nearly enough due to the myriad outside influences that can, or might, corrupt us all. Friends, family, media, strangers in the street. The world, not the womb.
Many more of you discussed the best-selling book of the same name by Lionel Shriver upon which this film is adapted. In it, a travel-struck woman called Eva (Tilda Swinton) settles before her adventures are done and gives birth to her first child, Kevin (Ezra Miller). Does she resent him as the bung in her plans to scoot across the globe? And, the thought that will plague her every waking moment, does Kevin pick up on the resentment? Does he spite her because of it?
There’s no question Kevin is a deeply disturbed child. He broods. He is disobedient bordering on caricature. He glares. Never at his father (he’s all dreams and rainbows). But always at his mother.
In that sense they share a special bond. Only Eva is privy to the boy Kevin really is. His father cannot see it – is not shown it. But Eva knows. She senses it. Tilda Swinton’s performance is heartbreaking in its nuance. She plays fragile, yet strong, with crushing realism.
How would you react to a child that actively shuns you? Is unconditional love possible in such extreme circumstances?
Kevin develops a love of archery and a creepy affection for tee-shirts that are a few sizes too small in his teenage years … and then he commits an unspeakable crime. A crime toward which his entire life seemed to march. It was inevitable, at least in the context of this story, and it’s not giving too much away to say it involves a massacre at Kevin’s school.
The film is a discussion of two wildly different views. That one mother will blame herself for all the failings of her child, and that society will blame her too. And the opposite, that sometimes bad things happen and there is no reason. No explanation.
Director Lynne Ramsay turns these uncomfortable themes into a piece of art. The movie premiered to critical and audience acclaim at the Cannes International Film Festival … and rightly so. It’s a visually stunning study on the colour red, a suburban horror story, a masterful explorer of sound and haunting close-ups.
Ezra Miller, who plays the teenage Kevin, is perfectly cast. It’s the eyes. His ease at performing the all-important (to the story, at least) chilling disconnect of his emotions from the world. Does he feel? Can he?
A recent study of ‘callous and unemotional’ traits in children pointed to an early and obvious lack of eye contact in children studied that would lead to a lack of empathy in later life. These children literally could not see the love in their mother’s eyes. They didn’t know how to interpret it. The researchers pointed out that these children were not evil. But they could go on to lives of violence and criminal behaviour as a small percentage of pscyhopaths do.
And we know this to be true. The book itself was a deeper study of the kinds of children like the Columbine shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the latter of whom was diagnosed as a ‘psychopath’. “Unlike psychotic individuals, psychopaths are rational and aware of what they are doing and why. Their behavior is the result of choice, freely exercised.” Diagnosing Harris as a psychopath represents neither a legal defense, nor a moral excuse. But it illuminates a great deal about the thought process that drove him to mass murder.”
And it’s this question, ‘why’, that leads us to the most suspenseful closing scene in my movie-watching career.
It was heartbreaking and I have not been more moved by anything I’ve seen before it. It lingered for hours after leaving the screening and it’ll stay with you too.
If you’re into art that can impact you, this movie is a standout.
Check out the trailer here:
So, can children be born this bad? If so, is there hope to redeem them? How far should a mother’s unconditional love go?
We Need To Talk About Kevin releases into cinemas on November 17.
Mamamia and Hopscotch Films are inviting readers in Sydney and Melbourne to an exclusive preview screening in each city, 7pm Wednesday November 16. RSVP for your seats now! Sydney can apply here and Melbourne can apply here. Get cracking!
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