We need to talk about virtuosity displacing content

Tilda and her Very Nasty Offspring wait for expert assistance

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.

If someone holds their head down and then looks up like this - maybe that's not too bad. Everyone does it. But if they do it a lot and have a bit of eye shadow on THEY ARE A PSYCHO KILLER - CALL 911 AT THE EARLIEST (CONVENIENT) OPPORTUNITY (if in the target market. If in Australia ring 000.

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?

This entry was posted in Films and TV. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
28 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Yobbo
Yobbo
9 years ago

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

That really doesn’t describe nightmare on elm street at all. It’s not a thriller, it’s a straight up slasher film, the bad guy doesn’t appear on screen at all unless he’s killing or threatening people.

Jedmond
Jedmond
9 years ago

Off the top of my head and not really trying to answer everything.

It is a horror film, but it is also a comedy.

Neither horror films, melodramas or comedies are intrinsically inferior.

Psychological realism is a horrible way of understanding the characters, better to imagine them as pinballs bouncing around and provoking a matrix of meanings. The use of psychological realism in a film makes a tacit argument that psychology is the best way of understanding the film; this would run contrary to Ramsey’s interests. Consider it equally as an absurdist take on post-natal depression or teen sexuality as much as being about parental guilt or genuine psychopathic behaviour.

Symbolism is either noticed in which case it is obvious, or it is unnoticed in which case it is obtuse. And just because colour works symbolically doesn’t mean that’s all it’s doing. In this case, as like say Kieslowski’s Blue, White and Red trilogy, it is simply the starting basis for a loose set of formal restraints which Ramsey can have fun manipulating. Aka style.

paul walter
paul walter
9 years ago

Am glad Nicholas added this, including the fact that he still hasn’t got a line psychopathy. It’s something I can’t get a bead on either. Altho my enemies would probably put that down to my pathology.
If you are psychopathic you may not know it, as far as you know you are normal, if you ever stop to consider that. Maybe even you wonder what’s wrong with other people, instead?.
You’d have to morph from, well, straightness, to pathology for the experience and then be able to get back to normal, whatever that is, to really make much sense of it then somehow be able to resume being “normal”, free of the traits youd acquired that now determine you. Likewise you’d wonder what a diagnosed psychopath would make of being straight/normal for an hour or two.
Someone told me a definition for psychopathy would include a critical factor of loss of choice. When our resentments boil up, we clamp them usually, but the mechanism is missing for the pathological, they are apparently subject to their impulses their ideas somehow lack moderating or proportional regulatory mechanisms.
And you wonder if this state of being is as much deserving of pity as revilement. Sad not to have the feelings, experience, sense of value and meaning etc that make life worthwhile and comprehensible for your fellow humans.

Russell
Russell
9 years ago

I’ve never seen a horror film and I avoid any book I think will be depressing. However, recently, just because a friend wanted me to read it, I read a book called Stuart: a life backwards. “It explores how a young boy, somewhat disabled from birth, became mentally unstable, criminal and violent, living homeless on the streets of Cambridge” (Wikipedia)

It’s very readable, funny, real, and at the end you’ll cry for Stuart … so, a bit different to Kevin. If you feel like a change from reading A Christmas Carol at this time of year, try Stuart. Unless you have a heart of stone (or you’re an economist) you’ll be moved to think about justice and charity and love.

Russell
Russell
9 years ago

I only have to Google: kevin economist …….. don’t seem to be many economist “mass murderers” though (but when economists do it it’s called ‘structural adjustment’)

paul walter
paul walter
9 years ago

yes, but you have to weigh that against the opportunity cost, if they murder drells rather than geniuses.

Patrick
Patrick
9 years ago

Tks Nick, you’ve convinced me not to see it. Might not have been an uphill battle but you did as much as was needed! Time and money saved, yay :)

Richard Tsukamasa Green
Richard Tsukamasa Green(@richard-green)
9 years ago

Imagine if the IMF of the late 90s also had The Population Bomb as part of its received wisdom.

Julie Thomas
Julie Thomas
9 years ago

Does anyone remember the movie “Sybil”? If not, a brief synopsis is here;

http://ask.yahoo.com/20020502.html

The movie was triumph of acting by Sally Fields and I found it ’emotionally’ convincing that ‘multiple personality disorder’ (now known as Disassociative Identity Disorder)existed, although I’d never met anyone that I could imagine behaving like that.

So I wasn’t all that surprised when I heard that it now seems likely the case was mostly an invention of the treating psychiatrist (like the invention of repressed memories).

Does anybody find “United States of Tara” convincing?

So although I haven’t seen “We Need To Talk About Kevin”, I reckon Nick that you are right that the film has nothing to offer in terms of explaining psycholpathology of any kind. I’d say that the film was meant to be a vehicle for the actors to display their talents rather than being an attempt to explain how psychopaths come about.

Although, your description of the mother’s failure to ‘help’ Kevin sounds like a realistic description of the helplessness that some parents – particularly Aspie types – feel when trying to deal with ‘untypical’ behaviour from a child.

Who do you go to for help in these days when we all supposed to be self-reliant. Is it’s all our own fault if our kids turn out f**ked? Is that the question the movie is asking?

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

My understnding is that psychopaths are subject to a particular type of Dunning-Kruger effect – while they’re good at reading people, they have very superficial emotional lives and simply assume that everyone else does (and is as conscience-free and manipulative as them) too.

This is part of the reason why they often see their victims as ‘suckers’ who ‘deserved it’; since the psychopathic worldview is that everyone’s out stritly for themselves, and are perfectly willing to manipulate, cajole and intimidate to get their way, getting one’s own way is merely a demonstratration of the weakness or stupidity of others.

Kevin Shrugged, anyone?

Julie Thomas
Julie Thomas
9 years ago

The quotes are from The Science Show on the Dunning-Kruger effect and by Robin Williams, that well-known warmist who never ceases to bang on about climate change, despite the fact that he only seems to alienate the people he wants to convince. I’m not sure whether to admire him for his persistence or shake my head at his intransigence.

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/scienceshow/the-dunning-kruger-effect/3102360

“Charles Darwin once said, ‘Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge,’ and Dunning and Kruger seem to have proven this point. In light of this, it suddenly becomes clear why public debate can be so excruciating. Debates on climate change, the age of the Earth or intelligent design are perfect real-life examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect. It beautifully explains the utter confidence of those who, with no expertise, remain stubborn in their views regardless of overwhelming evidence. It makes you want to shake them by the collar and scream about how stupid they are. But evidence shows that’s not the best strategy.”

But what is the right strategy? All he offers is:

“The rather odd element of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that the incompetent don’t become aware of it until they become more competent. The key is education. Extending on their earlier experiments, Dunning and Kruger took half of their volunteers and trained them in how to solve the logic puzzles. It was as though a light went on for the under achievers. For the first time out of all the tests they began to realise that they were below average. Suddenly aware of their incompetence, they readjusted their estimates to something more realistic.”

Interesting but is it possible to educate everyone in this way? Are we all able to develop the capacity for meta-cognition? As Dan says; psychopaths have very superficial emotional lives perhaps reflecting the fact that their brains don’t have the capapity to understand the complex requirements of socialising and the idea that people are not all the same.

Who knows yet if there is a way of turning the light on for psychopaths.

Julie Thomas
Julie Thomas
9 years ago

Which is not to say, Dan, that I think Ayn was a psychopath. I think the ‘lesser’ diagnosis of Narcissisic Personality Disorder, explains her problems better.

Julie Thomas
Julie Thomas
9 years ago

I totally agree Nick but it seems to me that there are bugger all – dare I say it and appear to be anti-American – recent US films that make any attempt to offer psychological insights. Too political?

Cricket commentators, on the other hand, seem to be offering some interesting psychological insights these days.

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

Julie@14: ‘Who knows yet if there is a way of turning the light on for psychopaths.’

Beahvioural interventions seem to work a bit but I think this treats the ‘symptoms’ (antisocial or damaging ways of acting) rather than the cause (psychopathy). ‘The lights are off, but somebody’s home.’

Re: your substantive question – I would say: No.

Julie Thomas
Julie Thomas
9 years ago

Dan I think the current position is that psychopaths are very resistant to treatment; and that therapy can actually make them worse as they are very good at learning how to behave as if they are’t psychopaths.

This is the best info I have found and it seems to indicate that there are significant differences in the brain of psychopaths and so it is more ‘genetic’ than other psychiatric disorders.

http://wiringthebrain.blogspot.com/2010/02/bad-to-bone-altered-connections-in.html

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

Great link! Thanks.

Paul Montgomery
Paul Montgomery
9 years ago

Narcissisic Personality Disorder

Cricket commentators, on the other hand, seem to be offering some interesting psychological insights these days.

For some reason this made me think of Kerry O’Keefe.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
9 years ago

The issue of economists and psychopathy reminds me of this article from the Economist.

paul walter
paul walter
9 years ago

Guava, Don Arthur. Am sure it confirms what many have long suspected..

paul walter
paul walter
9 years ago

Julie Thomas, thanks for interesting fill-in link at@ 19. From there one can speculate as to whether evolution has somehow developed this percentile dispersal through the species, eg, early human groups needed a number of individuals of this type to survive (eg, someone daft enought to go out and kill a sabre tooth tiger, instead of sensibly avoiding one till it caught and ate you- reducing complexity way too much).
Anyway, it seems for many generations, psychopaths have survived the viscissitudes of life along with “normal” people, so we are stuck with them and them us. But it does seem a sad thing to go through life with a small amygdala, when size appears to mean so much.

john
john
9 years ago

Have not seen the film … but tilda swinton has always left me cold.

However artists are before anything else entertainers a, ‘reality unvarnished’ is an acquired taste for most. Like what do you expect, ‘we are born crying and when we have cried enough we die’ to sell well?

Bernice
Bernice
9 years ago

I’m not quite sure what everyone else feels they were commenting about, but I have both read the book and see the film, and I don’t agree with Nic.

I went to see the film without reading the book (having assiduously avoided it as it was “a bestseller” which are usually grindingly awful) so I did not know much other than child becomes mass murderer and everyone then wants to know, was it really all the mother’s fault?

I thought the film made more psychological sense than the book as to Kevin’s actions – Eva on screen’s behaviour post-event in her open vulnerability can be shaped as contrition; her stumbling mechanical parenting is probably too close to how most of us have behaved at moments or periods. Eva on the page is meant by Shriver’s own account to be the unreliable witness but by book’s end I thought her as much of a monster as Kevin. And I’d argue the book is about Eva – it is her account after all, but it is one of self-justification, monstrous in its post-Carnegie personality by numbers.

Yes Kevin in the film was over-acted, but I pity any director trying to catch on film a child as less than appealing. Nubile is a poor transmitter of evil. If that is what Kevin was.

The editing – was it an attempt to portray memory shattered by trauma, bruised by retribution, lashings of guilt? Yes the red paint thing was a bit of the top – couldn’t she just hire a beaver paint gun for god’s sake? But hey if your teenage soon murdered 11 of his school mates, teacher and canteen worker, you’d probably spend a few hours on the angle grinder too.