Nature or nurture?
Do children grow up to do wrong as a result of the way in which they have been brought up, or because of something innate within themselves; something which simply cannot be stopped, changed or fixed?
It’s every parent’s nightmare: that, no matter what they do, their child will still turn out to be amoral; sociopathic; or psychopathic... that, no matter what they tell them, how they teach them, or how many times they tell them not to do something – and why – that their children will still have some perverted desire to do wrong.
The trouble is: it is understandable for a parent to compare the actions of their children with the way in which they have brought them up. And why not? Many would regard nurture as being the most important element – the parallels between abused and abusers; those brought up in loving environments who then go on to share that love; those brought up in emotionally sterile environments growing up aloof and emotionally distant. Indeed critics of the “nature” element regard it as actually irrelevant – if you were brought up right, even your inherent predisposition towards “bad” can be changed – but I think this is a simplistic viewpoint. There are a whole bunch of elements which pool together to give a person their character, and the honest answer is that it is very difficult to isolate any one as being the deciding factor.
We Need to Talk About Kevin tells the tale of Eva, a woman who is living in the shadow of a horror which tore her family apart. She works in a dead-end job, is constantly verbally and physically abused by the women in her neighbourhood, is despised and shunned by some of her co-workers, and frequently comes home to find her house splattered in red paint. She also occasionally visits her son, who is in prison for a horrendous crime he committed at high school. Over the course of the narrative, which attempts to deconstruct this horrific event by looking at the effects on Eva, we flash back to elements from her past – how she met and fell in love with her husband, the birth of their first child: a boy who, even at an early aged, proved particularly difficult for her to manage and gradually grew into a dangerous force within the family unit.
Based on the novel of the same name, written by Lionel Shriver, the film version of We Need to Talk About Kevin suffered under a fairly troubled production history, eventually getting made on a minimal budget – with UK lottery funding – under the direction of Lynne Ramsey, the Scottish film director behind the brooding Morvern Callar, who was originally slated to direct The Lovely Bones before Peter Jackson took over. Ramsey was reportedly dropped from The Lovely Bones because of the direction that she wished to take the book in, and evidence of a similar approach in We Need to Talk About Kevin seems apparent too.
Both the book and the film adopt a very well-constructed puzzle-piece portrayal of the situation, with the film amounting to a series of interspliced time-jumping segments, where the book told its story largely using letters written by the character of Eva to her husband. Both have her attempt to deconstruct her past with a view to understanding her present; looking back on every little instance in her life which may have helped mould or shape the events that would; anything which could explain just what made her son turn out the way he did.
Yet where the book made it fairly ambiguous over whether or not Eva was a suitable mother – if anything positing that it could have been, at least partly, her own negative actions and behaviour; her ‘not wanting to have a child’; her distance and the lack of genuine natural love she felt for her child, which directly contributed towards how her son turned out – the film goes in a different route altogether.
Both the book and the film are about her search for the root of his evil, but where the book implies that the mother could be to blame, the film largely skips over this and heads distinctly in the demon child direction instead. That it portrays the son in such a realistic, believable fashion makes no odds – what the film depicts is just an intelligent take on your standard devil-child story. Yet where these kinds of horrors – from The Omen to The Orphan – make it clear that the parents are not to blame for what has possessed these children, that was arguably not the point of the book. Indeed the writer went to great lengths to express what was, essentially, quite a negative view on motherhood – despite her own lack of experience – and was trying to show how some mothers could be so at odds with their own children that the ensuing childhood relationship can be disastrously damaged. Yet where the writer would probably lean more towards the side of nurture, the director appears to have shifted the balance to head more in the direction of nature.
The end result, whilst it follows all the trappings of the usual demon-child formula, is still considerably involving because it is brought to life in such an eminently realistic fashion. You genuinely believe that this woman could have had a child who, inexplicably, was born pure evil. He looks evil, he scowls permanently, has a predisposition towards taunting and teasing others, and all this whilst he’s still in nappies. You just wait until he grows up and gets his first bow-and-arrow set!
You sympathise with the mother; feel for her introspective depression – she blames herself, and wonders where she went wrong – and yet you can clearly see that she had the odds stacked against her right from the start. That there are hints of regret peppered along the way (once, when he’s just a baby, she sighs to herself about how she wishes she were back in France, single) makes no difference when you consider the child that she is dealing with. There’s nothing about him that’s natural, normal. There’s nothing that you will likely have ever seen in your own kids or those of others. Kids are naughty; they pick the legs off insects; they mistreat their younger siblings; they disobey their parents at every turn, often in ways that may even go way beyond the standard parameters of “mischievous”, but how many kids are actually evil? How many are born sociopaths?
What could have made this a brilliant, daring movie would have been the portrayal of a more morally culpable parent, and a less clichéd bad child, perhaps slightly more in-line with the book and what feels like the author’s original intentions.
What makes it a nonetheless compelling, gripping watch which is set apart from the more standard horror fare which it innovatively adapts is the singularly fantastic performance of the lead actress, Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton, The Deep End, Constantine), who plays the mother.
We watch Swinton, ethereal, vehemently androgynous mother traverse a multitude of different emotional situations, encounters and dilemmas which are all accessible to the viewer, which are all easy to sympathise – even empathise with. She is at once the free spirit travel writer, desperately in love and ready to start a new family in a new home, and, at the same time, a shell of a woman who wanders the earth like the living dead, drifting through a routine existence with but one self-destructive purpose: the deconstruction of her tragic past with a view to self-blame. She’s frequently seen literally trying to wash blood (or red paint) from her hands in a symbolic gesture that nods to Lady Macbeth, and she simply cannot come to terms with the events that have befallen her. It’s a stunning performance, and, to a large extent, I understand the furore over her lack of Oscar recognition as a result (it was so much easier for the Committee to vote for Oscar-friendly Meryl Streep in the Oscar-friendly biopic The Iron Lady).
The supporting actors are all also universally good. The frequently comedic actor John C. Reilly (The Aviator, Carnage) plays a totally against-type dramatic role as the oblivious “good” father; who is so preoccupied with crafting his own idealistic “perfect family” that he completely ignores anything that might suggest that things are not quite right in their household. This portrayal is more in-line with the book, which used his character as a metaphor for the American public consciousness – self-willed optimism that is often dashed against the rocks of reality. Indeed Reilly’s father/husband is so misguided in his perception of his own family unit that you find yourself easily disliking his frustratingly naive character. However, where the film adopts a more explicitly evil child approach, so too does Reilly’s character’s culpability fall by the wayside. We should blame him more than we do (and, indeed, some might argue that – in the book – he was the villain), but, with this kind of super-intelligent, super-manipulative Lex Luthor child, you actually feel like he didn’t stand a chance. Of course Reilly himself, although you might not expect it from him, is simply perfect in the role.
It is also almost impossible not to regard Ezra Miller’s performance as the evil Kevin as being an impressive contribution, especially considering the guy’s age. It’s a testament to the strength of his abilities even as a young actor that he can convince as this young, highly intelligent, and massively narcissistic sociopath, yet do so without resorting to a one-dimensional cardboard cliché characterisation like something out of a standard demon-child horror. There may only be glimmers of humanity in his portrayal – including a brief respite for the mother when he has a childhood illness that gives us a hint of his true vulnerability – but it’s still enough to make his character more interesting, and more believable (The two other child actors are also impressive in how they bring forth some subtle nuances to round out the character).
At the end of the day, however, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a relentless exercise in self-examination, depression, desperation and self-destruction, juxtaposed with the more conventional tale of a born-bad kid who slowly but surely wreaks havoc on his seemingly ideal family. Driven by an intense central performance from Tilda Swinton, and made all the more interesting and involving from its clever back-and-forth narrative style, it falls just shy of being truly great because of its more familiar horror aspects and lack of truly insightful psychological observations. Yet whilst some would see it as an interesting but not fully resolved psychological study, it also remains a unique variation within this horror sub-genre, truly getting to the nub of a mother’s worst nightmare. However unrealistic that may actually be, it’s very entertaining, albeit in a relentlessly bleak and depressing way. Watch it for Swinton, and to see the other side to “evil child” movies; it’s an admirable production, albeit not a very palatable one.
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