So many times now we’ve had to endure the tragic news story of a disgruntled teen who shoots up the whole school and then kills himself. Sympathy goes to the victims and their parents, as well it should. Hatred and blame have to go somewhere, especially when the shooter has taken his own life. The first thought on many minds is “what kind of a mother could raise such a monster?”
Such is the paradigm in Lynne Ramsay’s unsettling, unforgettable new film, "We Need to Talk About Kevin." Ramsay wisely comes at the film not wanting to give any answers, but to ask one specific question: Whose fault is it? We’re not really comfortable with the idea that a sociopath could just be born that way. We’d much rather have someone to blame – and that someone is, without fail, the mother.
It’s unusual to see a film not back down from the uncomfortable dynamic that there is always a need to place blame somewhere, because only then can you have a pathway out of the nightmare to a world that makes better sense. But Ramsay and co-writer Rory Kinnear go there.
Played with hollowed-out magnificence by Tilda Swinton, this mother is tortured by her own guilt throughout the film – first, for not really feeling connected with her child at any point, not knowing how to reach him and never forming a positive bond with him. He is too smart, knows her too well, and mostly knows how to hurt and disturb her every day of his life. They do form a bond eventually, but it is an unhealthy one.
The film covers years, and Swinton must play the mother at various stages of this story. She is the young bride-to-be. She is the young mother. And eventually, she is the shattered, barely surviving mother of a mass murderer, a woman who has lost everything. Her face is a canvas in and of itself – not just because it’s wide and flat, and white like a movie screen, but because she controls her expressions so well. She never gives away too much, but drives the plot with one facial tick.
In the film, as in life, all eyes turn on the mother when something goes wrong – and yet, in the thick of it, if a mother dares to speak ill of her child she is judged as being bad, uncaring, cold. Here, that societal eye is embodied in the husband, played by John C. Reilly. His own denial and general absence forces him to see his wife as a woman who can’t accept her own child.
If Swinton’s character is guilty of anything, it’s not trusting her own instincts about her kid – not finding someone, anyone, who will listen and try to somehow control the boy. And as we all know from reports of school mass murderers, sometimes even intervention can’t prevent something like this happening. Swinton’s character knows there is something wrong with Kevin. But she’s at a loss as to what to do because, in the end, if there’s something wrong with him, there must also be something wrong with her.
"We Need to Talk About Kevin" is most dramatically marked by its director’s expressive visual style, and by the performances of Swinton and newcomer 18-year-old Ezra Miller, who plays the blank-eyed simmering pot, Kevin. You can't take your eyes off Miller, and you never quite get enough of him. Puffy, rose-colored lips, creamy white skin, hypnotic eyes – how could such a beautiful child perpetrate such evil? The filmmakers managed to find kids who look just like Miller to play him at various ages, and it’s remarkable.
With so much going on at once, and such tough emotional terrain to cover, Ramsay never drops the ball. She tells her story as well with or without dialogue, and the film just gets better as the story unfolds. There is careful attention paid to choices of color, combinations of objects and people in the frame. Ramsay made the film after a near 10-year hiatus that followed her last feature, "Morvern Callar," but her work is deliberate and sure-handed.
"We Need to Talk About Kevin" doesn’t offer up a neat, tidy ending, and it will never give you the catharsis you need after such an experience; there are horrors in this life that do not deserve a happy ending. But for parents, mothers in particular, who’ve spent many a silent night lying in bed worrying about our mothering, regretting having crossed a line, hoping everything turns out okay in the end, we cannot help but sympathize with Swinton.
Some will say that the film is in the wrong: we shouldn’t sympathize with her, we should hope she rots in hell. Sadly, her character would agree.
More of Sasha Stone's Cannes coverage can be found at Awards Daily.