Saturday, August 4, 2012

We Need to Talk About We Need to Talk About Kevin

So this is the second time in recent memory that I went into a movie expecting a sociological investigation of character and motivation and got a horror flick. We Need to Talk About Kevin takes as its subject the unspeakable nightmare of a mass killing at a high school, and tries for about 50% of the movie to delve into the question it's almost impossible not to ask: Where were the parents? The other 50%? Straight-up The Bad Seed.

Because the film jumbles the chronology of the life of the main character, Tilda Swinton's Eva, Kevin's mother, it gestures towards replicating the psychological upset of trauma. This is one of the hyper-stylized directorial choices that work. Many do not. I was not a fan, for example, of the filmstrip-esque rendering of Kevin's unplanned conception, on a cellular level, or of the hackneyed and obvious trope of Eva washing her hands of red substances--tomato sauce, paint, hamster blood. We get it. She feels responsible for the deaths. However, I didn't feel the film's argument about Eva's complicity in Kevin's crime was completely earned, or completely baked. Blaming the mother is a slippery slope, especially if her frustration with her newborn over interrupting a life of bohemian travel and New York City fabulousness is represented as both selfish and unavoidable.

In fact, several explanations are put forward to "explain" Kevin's behavior along with Eva's verbal  and physical expression of her resentment: undiagnosed autism and pure sociopathy. Did Kevin kill his classmates and brag about it because his mother never bonded with him? Because she physically abused him? Or are some people just born bad? The movie seems more interested in a screechy soundtrack and playing hide and seek with the audience than seriously investigating this question.

And the thing is, it's an important question. I know that every perpetrator of a massacre is different: It is naive and ignorant to equate Charles Whitman with Seung-Hui Cho with Jared Lee Loughner with James Holmes. But asking serious questions, and positing serious answers, about what contributes to this type of psychopathology through fiction can, ideally and hopefully, give us a way to interrupt its development. We do need to talk about Kevin, just not in a sensational or lazy way.

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