We need to talk about We Need to Talk about Kevin

Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Photograph: The Guardian (Nicole Rivelli photography)

I was mortified by the prospect of being hopelessly trapped in someone else’s story”

We Need to Talk about Kevin: The Movie is the story of Eva Khatchadourian, a mother with the unfortunate luck of having a sociopath for a son and an imbecile for a husband. Her son turned out to be a murderer, and the people of the town will punish her forever. It’s tragic, but not especially interesting.

The beauty of We Need to Talk About Kevin: The Book, was the nuance and the unknowns. Though I know it’s a cliché to whine about how the movie butchered the book, it’s true.  What I loved about the book was that it left me with questions. Is Kevin a monster because he was destined to be a monster? Or is Kevin a monster because his mother rejected him from the beginning? Do parents actually have the power to ruin their children so completely or are our lives, the lives we’re so desperate to control, really out of our hands? The story of the murders is really secondary to the story of understanding motherhood and understanding Eva’s and Kevin’s place in the world.

That’s not to say the movie is without merit.  It’s visually stunning. From the opening scene in a Diwali celebration covered in red, to jam oozing out of a sandwich. Extreme close-ups and intense flashbacks. Awkward silences.  The upbeat soundtrack is cleverly chosen. It really is a wonder that the Oscars snubbed this movie for directing or editing. But that’s not the same as being a great movie, especially a movie based on a great book.

All I can tell about MovieEva is that her life kind of sucks. I don’t know why, except that her child hates her and acts creepy all the time. But is that all? Is she only missing the love of a child?

“Once I habituated to rising to my own challenge-to proving repeatedly that I was independent, competent, mobile, and grown up – gradually the fear inverted: The one thing I dreaded more than another trip to Malaysia was staying home. So I wasn’t only afraid of becoming my mother, but a mother. I was afraid of being the steadfast, stationary anchor who provides a jumping off place for another young adventurer whose travels I might envy, whose future is still unmoored and unmapped.  … More than of leaving, I’d developed a fear of being left.”

From the beginning, Eva struggles with being a mother. Her baby screams all the time when they’re alone, but never when her husband, Franklin, is around. Later, her child refuses to speak, to interact, or even to use the toilet. He ruins her beloved possessions. He gives nothing of himself. All that just looks like bad luck. But what we don’t see is BookEva’s ambivalence towards being a mother. Sure, she admits to Kevin that he makes her miserable, but what kid like that wouldn’t make a mother miserable? We miss out on the decision to have a child. We don’t see Franklin pestering her or questioning her devotion for being unsure about having a child. We don’t see his disgust when she admits that she might not want one.

“What possessed us? We were so happy? Why, then, did we take the stake of all we had and place it all on this outrageous gamble of having a child? Of course you consider the very putting of that question profane. Although the infertile are entitled to sour grapes, it’s against the rules, isn’t it, to actually have a baby and spend any time at all on that banished parallel life in which you didn’t.”

John C. Reilly’s Franklin barely exists in the movie. He has a few lines that let us know he likes his son and is disappointed in Eva, but he has little impact on the story.  When he is around, he seems silly. How can he not see that his son should be institutionalized? How can he think his wife is to blame for everything?

BookFranklin is Mr. America. He wants the dream of a big suburban house, with a wife who is completely satisfied by taking care of her family.  When Eva doesn’t love Kevin the way Franklin thinks she ought to, he resents her. He doesn’t understand how a mother couldn’t love her own son. Like the world at large, Franklin thinks his wife needs to be a mother to be a woman, and hopes that having a baby will make her settle down and love him the way he needs to be loved. Once she agrees to get pregnant, she becomes A Mother.

“You wouldn’t even let me dance, Franklin! Really, there was one afternoon that my subtle but unrelenting anxiety had mercifully lifted. I put on our Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues and began buoyantly herky-jerking around our under-furnished loft. The album was still on the first song, ‘Burning Down The House,’ and I’d barely worked up a sweat when the elevator clanked and in you marched. …You grabbed my upper arm. ‘Are you trying to have a miscarriage? Or do you just get a kick out of tempting fate?’ I wrestled free. ‘Last time I read, pregnant wasn’t a prison sentence.’”

Franklin doesn’t see his son’s flaws because he doesn’t want to. It helps that Kevin manipulates him, something we see only a little of in the film, and only seriously misbehaves with his mother, but it’s the expectations that keep him in the dark. When Eva doesn’t behave the way he needs her to to fulfill his fantasy, he blames her. His anger blinds him.

In stark contrast to Franklin, Eva detests America. It’s too loud, too big, and too full of itself. It thrives on complacency and safety. It values infamy. It relies on a legal system to solve all troubles. Eva built a travel empire on her own, and though her reasons for travel are complicated, leaving makes her whole.

“I can’t recall a single trip abroad that, up against it, I have truly wanted to take, that I haven’t in some way dreaded and wanted to desperately to get out of. I was repeatedly forced out the door by a conspiracy of previous commitments: the ticket purchased, the taxi ordered, a host of reservations confirmed, and just to box myself in a little further I would always have talked up the journey to friends, before florid farewells. …My whole life I’ve been making myself do things. I never went to Madrid, Franklin, out of appetite for paella, and every one of those research trips you imagined I used to slip out of surly bonds of our domestic tranquility was really a gauntlet I’d thrown down and compelled myself to pick up.”

Celia is more of a drop-in character in both the movie and the book.  She is Eva’s second chance at being a good mother, and a wider wedge to drop between Eva and Franklin. In the book, Celia is clearly Eva’s. Franklin resents the child because of the way Eva loves her, and doesn’t appear to love Kevin.  Celia is sweet and naïve. She gives love to everyone, even when it is undeserved. She is to Franklin, proof that his wife just didn’t try with Kevin. To Kevin, she is something that Eva loves that he can’t understand.

In the movie, Franklin loves Ceilia. We don’t see much of the two together, but what we do see is that she’s just another part of a happy family (which makes Franklin’s refusal to see Kevin’s obvious sociopathic tendencies even more preposterous).

In the book, Celia is also a clue that Eva might not be such a bad mother after all – at least not innately. By the time Ceilia arrives, Eva has already resigned herself to a life without travel, to a life of suburban motherhood. So it’s easier to love Cecilia. It’s easier to want to be her mother when she has nothing left to give up. And of course, Celia makes it easier on Eva because she is a lovely, though weak, little girl.

“Celia was not clingy. She was simply affectionate. She did sometimes wrap her arms around my leg in the kitchen, press her cheek to my knee, and exclaim with amazement, ‘You’re my friend!’”

The movie was right to leave out a lot of the detail. It’s far too much to cram in to 2 hours. As it is, it felt like we were forced through the timeline of Kevin’s life, getting a few hints to prepare us for the violent finale. We don’t learn about the children Kevin kills, or about the friends he tries to have. We don’t see Franklin’s family, or times that Franklin might doubt Kevin just a little bit.  But even by leaving out the details, we lose out on the beauty of the story.

There is a scene where Eva and Kevin are at the mini-golf place, and Eva, upon noticing some fat people, goes on a rant. In the film, it seems out of character and cruel. Why is Eva suddenly picking on these people? What we miss is that those people represent America and all the constraints she sees on her life. They are what she fears becoming.

“’Whenever I see fat people, they’re eating,’ I ruminated safely out of the diner’s earshot. ‘Don’t give me this it’s glands or genes or slow metabolism rubbish. It’s food. They’re fat because they eat the wrong food and too much of it, and all the time.’ The usual lack of pickup, not even mm-hmm, or true. Finally, a block later: ‘You know, you can be kind of harsh.’”

There are a few flashbacks of a trial, but not much to explain why Eva now lives in a dilapidated house all alone. We know the mothers of the dead hate her, but we don’t know that they hate her so much that they sue her for parental negligence in an effort to blame her for the murders. We don’t see Eva’s refusal –after stubbornness drove her to court instead of agreeing to a settlement – to fight in court, a sign that maybe she thinks the murders are actually her fault? Or maybe that she’s just so angry at her life that she won’t let a sham trial take anything more from her?  Maybe both.

The biggest flaw of the film is probably how simplified Kevin was.   Though it is a story about Eva, we need to understand Kevin to really get her. Eva and Kevin are similar characters. They both hold disdain for the world. They feel trapped, but don’t make much effort – or maybe don’t know how – to change their lives.  MovieKevin is crazy. BookKevin is smart, yet bored.  He wants love but also hates love. He can’t be happy and he can’t understand others’ happiness.  He struggles through life, unable to deal with the inanity of everything he’s asked to do. He’s too smart for the normal bullshit. He’s manipulative, for sure, but he’s also wounded. He doesn’t fit in the world. And sure, he’s also crazy, but to paint him only as a sociopath is to take out all the intrigue from the character.

I liked all three actors who played Kevin. I think they did creepy and scary well.  Like the directing and editing, Ezra Miller and Tilda Swinton were slighted in the Oscar race.  But the movie, overall, hasn’t received a lot of attention, which doesn’t exactly break my heart. It’s a perfectly fine movie. But it’s not great. And I really wanted greatness out of this story.

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