The fictional movie, We Need to Talk About Kevin, is based on the powerful and poignant book by Lionel Shriver. It raises questions to do with nature vs. nurture, attachment, motherhood, childhood, dysfunctional families, postnatal depression, effects of television and much else.
The movie starts off with a tomato fight scene set in Spain. Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Franklin, her husband, (John C. Reilly) are in their element. Eva, spattered in red juice, is depicted as fun, vibrant and carefree. She is their because of her career as a travel writer and Franklin because of her.
Then we’re jolted to the present. Eva’s house is splashed in red paint. As she gets up, she knocks over tubes of pills which scatter on the floor. The furniture is old, rickety, falling apart, perhaps to represent her fragile self. Many of you may be wondering how the happy woman ended up this pill popping wreck? The answer: a psychopathic, mass murdering son. Kevin, her sixteen year old son shot and killed nine classmates, two teachers and one cafeteria worker at his school and was serving prison sentence. Here’s how Kevin was created.
It all started when Eva got pregnant. We’re not sure how willing she was to have a child from the scene where she is critically examining her new figure in the mirror. She is staring at the bump in a disapproving manner. Her discomfort with pregnancy is further exemplified when she goes to a pregnancy class. She doesn’t socialize or talk to a single mother-to-be. It is clear she is uncomfortable being around all these happy pregnant women, while she is so unhappy. Her discomfort finally takes the better of her and she is quickly out the door.
Eva gives off a very cold, selfish, harsh vibe, whereas Franklin is the perpetual optimist. From the second Kevin was in Eva’s womb, she was uncomfortable, disapproving and ambivalent of him. When she gave birth, not much changed. Babies need a mother’s unconditional love in order to grow into happy, healthy human being’s. They need positive affirmations, warmth and tenderness from a mother. This helps them become emotionally secure and develop a positive self-image and feelings of self-worth. It is evident that Eva was not really cut out for motherhood. She was cold and disingenuous with Kevin. Her behaviours and talk with him was stilted and awkward. Babies need attachments in order to survive. Since they are completely reliant on their caregiver they have to trust that caregiver. That trust is cultivated through secure attachments and fulfilling babies’ basic needs for love, comfort, food and shelter. Eva may have ticked the last two boxes, but the former were left starkly empty.
The antagonistic relationship between mother and baby was reciprocal. Eva was constantly frustrated and annoyed with Kevin who behaved badly and tormented her. With Franklin, however, Kevin was as sweet as pie. Eva’s resentment towards Kevin is further exemplified when she tells him how much better her life was without him and how she would love to escape to Paris. Kevin returned her words with a furious glare.
There’s an interesting scene when Eva decorates her room and papers the walls with maps to represent her passion for travel. When Kevin sees this he says it’s dumb. Eva tells Kevin that she could make him a room of his own to represent his personality. Kevin’s angry response is, “What personality?” We get the impression that he hasn’t formed a positive identity of his own and doesn’t seem to have any feelings of self-worth. He seems to be a lost, angry boy. He later destroys her room with a paint gun after which Eva destroys the paint gun. We can see they are both spinning around in a destructive cycle.
Kevin also tries to manipulate and control Eva through refusing to potty train. One day Eva becomes so irritated by Kevin she actually throws him across the room and breaks his arm. Even as she said sorry, she said it in third person, “Mommy did a very bad thing and she’s so sorry.” She can’t connect with him at all. Later when Kevin is older, he says that breaking his arm, “was the most honest thing you (Eva) ever did.” This shows how he picked up that everything she said and did with him was disingenuous and that he knew she felt forced to do it. It was the only time she truly showed how angry she was with him and how much she resented him. Otherwise, she’s always trying to keep her emotions under a tight belt and her voice controlled. After the incident, Kevin started using the toilet as a way of rewarding her honesty.
While Eva sees the absolute worst in Kevin, Franklin is not much better trying to create an ideal image of him. He is always trying to see the best in Kevin and is in complete denial of his nihilistic, dark, cruel side. In fact, the worse Kevin’s behaviour becomes, the more defensive Franklin becomes over him, perhaps to reduce his own cognitive dissonance. In this way, Franklin is not in tune with Kevin either and can’t meet his needs.
Surprisingly, Eva gets pregnant again with a girl, Celia. She clearly didn’t enjoy it the first time so perhaps she is trying to prove to herself that she can actually be a good mother given a second chance. When she tells Kevin he’s going to have a sister and that he’ll have to get used to it, he responds, “Just because you’re used to something, doesn’t mean you like it. You’re used to me.” Eva didn’t even disagree.
Fast forward a few years and scenes, Kevin is 16, waiting for the doors of the gymnasium to be broken into. Once the bolts were sliced through, Kevin stood there, hands up, basking in his glory. Police were buzzing around him, cameras were clicking, and people were screaming and shouting. Was this his version of fame? Self-validation? As well as murdering twelve people at the school gymnasium where he was arrested, he also killed Franklyn and Celia, leaving Eva to live as a form of eternal punishment. Perhaps in a twisted way, he wanted her to live because she was the only person who really understood him for what he was. After all, his personality traits seem to be an exaggerated reflection of hers.
After Kevin committed mass murder at his school, he appeared on television. From what he says, we can tell he has been indoctrinated by TV culture. Kevin was talking about how people just watch TV these days, “And what do these people watch? People like me.” He goes on to say that if he lead an ordinary life, getting A’s in Geometry, he wouldn’t be on TV now. As if being on TV is the most important thing in the world. For Kevin what distinguishes a dull, ordinary, boring life from an exciting one is fame and being on TV. This usually happens when people have no intrinsic feeling of value. They look for external means to validate their personalities and Kevin thought being famous for murder was the key.
When Eva goes to visit Kevin in prison they sit in stony silence for a while. Eventually she said, “You don’t look happy,” to which he replied, “Have I ever?” implying that throughout his whole childhood he was miserable and angry. Eva then asks him why he killed her husband, daughter and the twelve victims at his school. Kevin, for once, looks confused and said, “I used to think I knew. Now I’m not so sure.”
We can only speculate what caused Kevin to do it. Did his feeling of anger and hatred of the world stem from an icy refrigerator mother? Was it television and hype surrounding shootouts in American schools make him think it cool? I believe it was a mix of nature and nurture. His mother didn’t provide him with unconditional love. She was merely a tick-box mom, trying to fill out her necessary, perfunctory roles. She resented him and made it clear. She suffered from postnatal depression which naturally made her become more self-absorbed. She saw the warning signs of Kevin’s cruel behaviour but did very little to stop his rampant anger. She was a career woman, dissatisfied with what pregnancy and motherhood brought, feeling it limited what she really wanted to do which was her job. Kevin was also too much alike her in some ways. He embodied a warped form of all her negative traits such as being negative, critical and unsympathetic. And then there was the television which opened up new possibilities for Kevin. Since he had no internal value as a human being, he had to look for external value to make up for it. He found that in fame and celebrity, even if it was for something terrible. He created an identity for himself as a mass murderer. The fame he got from that validated his person. Eventually that ebbed, however, and as we can see by the end of the movie, he regressed into being the same lost, angry boy he always was.
Image credit: Anna. (2011). Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin. Retrieved May 14, 2013 from http://www.theshiznit.co.uk/review/we-need-to-talk-about-kevin.php
Fox, J., Roeg, L., Salerno, B., (Producers), & Ramsay, L. (Director). (2011). We Need to Talk About Kevin [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: BBC Films.