Who’s baby is it, anyway?

The devil didn’t make ‘Kevin’ do it.

kevin Tilda Swinton movie 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
kevin Tilda Swinton movie 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The amount of anxiety that children cause parents cannot be overstated, but most of what we see portrayed in literature and drama are the most trivial concerns: politeness, good grades, etc. There is a much darker side that is rarely even discussed, and that is parents’ fear that their children will turn out to be evil and utterly destroy their families’ lives.
When that kind of evil child is portrayed on film, it is usually in the relatively safe guise of satanic stories. In Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, it is literally the devil that makes the children into malevolent forces. No one can blame bad parenting for that.
But the film We Need to Talk About Kevin, directed by Lynne Ramsay, takes the devil (and also God) out of the equation and asks “Can a child be purely evil?” It hearkens back to the chilling but gimmicky drama The Bad Seed, in which a superficially angelic little girl is capable of hellish deeds, even murder.
Based on a disturbing novel by Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin focuses on a seemingly unexceptional family in a similarly bland American suburb, where the teenage son commits horrible acts.
We see both what led up to them and how his mother struggles to cope in the aftermath. Both the movie and the novel were clearly inspired by the massacres at Columbine and other US high schools. But while the film is powerful and meticulously crafted, it is flawed by a fundamental lack of authenticity and a tendency to offer easy answers.
Tilda Swinton gives a skillful performance as Eva, the mother, but she’s not an easy actress to warm up to. Her pinched, pained face shows tension from the first second, even in the scenes when she is pregnant with Kevin. Are we meant to think that even then she knew she was carrying a damned child? The family seems to exist in utter isolation, even when Kevin is first born and they live in New York City. There are no friends, neighbors or extended family who play any part in their lives. Perhaps the director is making a point about how alone many new mothers feel or is poetically exaggerating the family’s isolation to show how their son separates them from the rest of the world.
But it still feels artificial.
The character of Kevin is problematically conceived in that he is utterly bad from day one.
Even as a toddler, he taunts his mother; and as an older child, he is as willfully difficult as he can possibly be. He displays an inhuman consistency. There are no moments when he is needy, anxious or vulnerable. In a certain way, this is a seductive fantasy. It would be tempting to think that those kids who carry out armed attacks on their high schools are marked by evil behavior from birth, but the sad truth about these murderers is that they were generally considered troubled, scared and confused and often had been bullied. This is not to excuse their actions, of course, but to emphasize that they are not some completely alien form of life. A kid who picks up a gun and starts shooting is often not so different from the kids who don’t. And that’s a terrifying truth that this movie, which portrays Kevin as hell-bent on causing all the destruction he can with the sang-froid of a contract killer, refuses to confront.
John C. Reilly as Franklin, the boy’s father, is as good as he can be in a film that requires his character to be clueless in every scene. He and Swinton make for an oddly matched couple, and he doesn’t seem to fit in with the beige-and-white toned minimalism of the huge suburban house where they live for most of the movie.
Kevin is played by three actors: Rock Duer as a toddler, Jasper Newell as a child, and Ezra Miller as an adolescent, and they all give haunting performances.
But the movie is at its best when it focuses on Kevin’s mother after the tragedy, and Swinton is believable as a woman who has lost everything. The next time you feel like bragging about your wonderful kid’s accomplishments, keep in mind that the listener may be Kevin’s poor mother.
Directed by Lynne Ramsay.
Written by Ramsay and Rory Kinnear, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver Hebrew title: ‘Hayavim Lidaber al Kevin’ Running time: 112 minutes.
In English with Hebrew subtitles.