When a book is adapted into film, critics often argue that the movie does not do the written work justice. That’s absolutely the case for the thriller, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and the novel by the same name, but I’m glad to have experienced both, as the book has ample details and back story on each character whereas the film gives us visuals that simply do not have the same powerful effect on paper. Though the flick received mostly poor reviews, I think it’s important for all parents and adolescents to watch, as it shows one mother’s commitment to standing by her son after he has done one of the most horrendous things imaginable.
As noted by The New York Times, the story line is every parent’s nightmare. Worldly travel writer Eva tries to make sense of her life as she reflects on her failed marriage and comes to terms with the fact that her 15-year-old son Kevin (portrayed by the ever handsome Ezra Miller, and I don’t care that he’s only 19!), whom she identified as a sociopath the moment she first picked him up, has gone on a murder spree at his high school, and not in a typical way. It’s even more horrifying than a shooting, if you can imagine it. From the beginning, you think you have an idea of what will transpire, but I’ll just say there is plenty of room for twists and jaw dropping events in “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” even though you know from the get-go that he is going to orchestrate a massacre. The movie begins with Eva (played by the outstanding Tilda Swinton) shuffling out of bed to investigate the ruckus outside only to see that vandals have spray-painted her house and vehicle bright red. Maintaining the same comatose expression as she wears before examining the damage, she strolls back into her tiny home and climbs back into bed.
We’re then transported to Eva’s pre-children days, when she and her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) couldn’t be happier. Though Eva has never desired a child, she decides to become pregnant in hopes that she will catch the maternal bug upon bringing life into the world. The phrase “it takes time” is quite an understatement with respect to Eva’s connection with Kevin. She merely floats through pre-natal yoga, where her fellow classmates can’t stop smiling and gushing about their pregnancies.
Birth comes and goes and Eva still doesn’t feel the powerful motherly love she has heard about all her life, but she tries very, very hard to be a solid parent nonetheless. She has little to work with though, as young Kevin develops an aversion to her immediately. In the book, he rejects her breastmilk and screams whenever she’s around. The latter takes place on film, but only to an extent, and probably for the better. A movie with excessive howling would scare audience members away just as Kevin’s constant wailing prompts the downstairs neighbor in the book to move elsewhere. Kevin becomes an even bigger terror each year, spending his early elementary school years in diapers to infuriate his mom, shooting nasty looks and comments at her several times a day, and pretending to be a good kid in front of Franklin, who either refuses to believe or cannot see that his son is malicious and destructive.
In school, I learned a lot about what’s called an unreliable narrator, which is a storyteller who only provides you with his/her perspective. At first, Eva seems to be the classic unreliable narrator, as she blames Kevin for everything that goes wrong in her life, a reaction that ultimately pushes her husband away. When her second child Celia’s hamster goes missing, Eva assumes Kevin must have been involved in the animal’s disappearance. When little Celia becomes the victim of a terrible household accident under Kevin’s watch, Eva is confident that her son devised the disaster. When toddler Kevin still won’t utter any words, she faults him for the turn her life has taken, saying, “Before widdle Kevin came along, mommy was happy. If widdle Kevin weren’t here, mommy would be in France.” This antagonism strains her relationship with Franklin, who is simultaneously a charming all-American guy and a blissfully ignorant father. When Franklin says their marriage needs to end, Eva believes it’s all because of Kevin, who actually takes responsibility for the crumbling of his family. He walks in on their divorce discussion, and when Franklin advises him not to take what they said out of context, he responds, “I don’t need any context. I am the context.”
It’s easy to assume Eva is just looking for reasons to fault her son for her own choices, but as the film and book go on, you learn she was correct in her assessment of Kevin from his first day on earth. He’s just as vicious and dangerous as she fears, but the big question is whether she is equally evil herself. At the Times points out, Kevin and his mom are very similar. She doesn’t carry out a rampage, but she’s clever and harsh nonetheless, and Kevin definitely inherits his dark side from her.
The film weaves through the present and walks us through Eva’s life in small town New Jersey, where she is a pariah and ostracized by everyone around her. We watch Eva turn the other cheek and accept abuse as strangers gawk at her, slap her across the face, poke holes through each of her eggs when she steps away from the shopping cart to hide from one particular customer at the grocery store, betray and manipulate her, and even sexually harass her. At one point, we suspect we can trust one of her new colleagues, who happens to be the only person in the office who doesn’t look at her with disdain, but even he turns out to be a total creep.
One film critic said he disliked Eva being framed as a martyr, especially since she never wanted to be a mother, but I wouldn’t be so hard on her character. If anything, she’s likable because she owns her flaws and knows she has made some major mistakes at home. Though she could have easily fled the country and continued her travel writing elsewhere in the post-killing period, she sticks around the neighborhood she has hated since the day her husband forced her to move there because she wants to be in close proximity to her son’s jail. You also get the sense that she is atoning for her sins, and while this could be perceived as martyrdom, I can imagine it takes a lot of courage to show one’s face in a town after such a life-changing incident.
You’ll appreciate “We Need to Talk About Kevin” if you’re at all interested in different family dynamics and what unconditional love or support really mean. In spite of everything Kevin has done to Eva, her family, and so many people, Eva is there for him, and she hints that she’d be open to letting him start over and be a part of her life again after he serves his jail time. In spite of everything that takes place (and believe me, you don’t even know the half of it yet), she’s still dedicated to him, and not because she is obligated to care for him as a parent, but because she really does love him.