I went to see We need to talk about Kevin on Saturday night. It may not be universally well reviewed, but that’s how it’s seemed to me having spent a few minutes hunting down about three reviews all of which positively purred with praise for Tilda Swinton’s virtuosic acting and the film. Well she is a remarkable actor, and her acting in the film was great. In my opinion however the film was pretty much devoid of merit.
In case you’ve been under a rock for the best part of a decade, the book of the same title was written by a middle aged woman wondering what it might be like to bring up a psychopathic mass murderer of the kind that devastated Port Arthur, Columbine High School and more recently Norway. (I think it’s best not to mention such people’s names as doing so may be one of the things they are after when they do things like that – who knows?)
I won’t give you a long film review here, but rather make a point as I’d be interested in what others think.
The film focuses on the mother’s inner and outer torment, both after the child has done the awful deed – and she remains amongst the community where he’s done it (you’re not told why she doesn’t scarper as you’d expect any sane person would). So she gets shunned, spat on and slapped in the face, rendered virtually unemployable and has her house daubed with red paint. She tries to go on with her life. That’s after the awful deed. And before the deed we get, via kaleidoscope of flash-backs and forwards, her trying to bring her Little Monster up, as the Monster displays his stupendous nastiness towards her (he’s a bit nicer to his Dad when he wants to be) and virtually everything around him, blinds his sister in one eye and generally creates mayhem.
The presentation of this is confronting and Tilda is stoical and somewhat Aspergically disconnected from it all, but at the same time thoroughly melancholically traumatised by everything that’s going on and her own inability to do better, and her own doubt as to the extent that she might be responsible for all this.
But except for the compelling nature of Swinton’s acting, and the very spooky and energetic evil of the three Kevins, particularly the last 16 year old one, the film presents virtually no psychological or other (moral?) insight into what’s going on. Even with over half a decade’s blogging here and elsewhere, I am no expert on psychopaths. But I don’t think psychopaths like this kid exist. I think they’re supposed to be pretty normal to meet, not particularly ‘evil’ seeming. They are characterised by a thorough lack of empathy for others and often start by doing nasty things to pets. All the while they are socially very normal to those who are not watching closely. When they’re adult they can be very manipulative and clever and indeed, as a result seem very normal to a lot of people. When they commit their crimes a lot of people who know them socially are shocked because they seemed so normal. Their eventual crimes are often the result of a desire to amp up the excitement in their lives which they don’t seem to be able to get via normal activity (like blogging for instance!).
This may be more your serial killer than your mass murderer, but Kevin in this film is really a kind of Super Baddy. The genre is really Nightmare on Elm St. (Disclosure: I’ve never watched Nightmare on Elm St, but I presume it follows the standard formula where you know someone or something is just Bad, Very Bad, and they eventually go berserk and wreak mayhem and you are scared because you know things are not normal and nasty things can happen any time).
So the central premise of the film is the same melodrama as a horror film. Even if this were the case, it might be possible to give the film some psychological depth by portraying in some thoughtful way how this effects the psychological and moral landscape of the family. But all you get is inchoate misery and doubt. So I thought that amid the virtuosity of Tilda and her three Kevins (aged about 3, 8 and 16-7) the film had nothing much to recommend it.
(And someone obviously thought that using red to prefigure and post figure The Ghastly Deed and it’s Aftermath was very telling. So they did it again and again and again. Even down to the jar of strawberry jam that Kev empties onto his white bread. I don’t think this was particularly clever.)
Anyway, what thinkest though Oh Troppodillians?