The Impossible Question of 'We Need to Talk About Kevin': Nature or Nurture?

A mother grapples with grief and shame after a son's act of violence in the spellbinding new film.

A mother grapples with grief and shame after a son's act of violence in a spellbinding new film.

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"You are leaving, my darling boy. You always have been your mother's joy." Those words come from 1920s gospel singer Washington Phillips's "Mothers Last Word to Her Son," a hauntingly beautiful expression of the bittersweet bond between a mother and a son she knows she can no longer protect. But what happens when everything ugly about the world is embodied in the son, when he's the source of the "sin and woe" that Phillips sings about over his ethereal zither? If the bond between mother and son becomes tenuous or broken, is that the result of his evil deeds, or the cause of them?

Director Lynne Ramsay's new film, We Need to Talk About Kevin, returns again and again to Phillips's song as it examines the relationship between Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) and her son Kevin (Ezra Miller), a boy troubled seemingly from birth. As a baby, he rarely ceases crying, to the point where a frazzled Eva seeks refuge from the noise by walking him by construction sites, where the sound of the jackhammer five feet away provides momentary relief. As he gets older, he refuses to speak, refuses to allow himself to be potty trained, and asserts a manipulative dominance over his mother that his doting, Pollyannaish father Franklin (John C. Reilly) refuses to acknowledge. Kevin is anything but his mother's joy.

Adapted from the 2003 novel by Lionel Shriver, Ramsay departs from that book's epistolary structure (it was comprised entirely of letters from Eva to Franklin) in favor of a narrative of disjointed flashbacks. In the present, Eva lives the solitary existence of an outcast, trying to remain as invisible as possible in a community whose residents at best eye her distrustfully and at worst accost her on the street with an angry slap across the face. In the seclusion of her forced exile, her memory strays to events throughout Kevin's upbringing. Her thoughts always return, however, to the chaos and flashing police lights that surrounded the horrific act of violence, perpetrated by Kevin, that led her here.

Serious contemplations of truly horrific and nearly unfathomable incidents of youth violence are rare in film. The question that inevitably follows those tragedies is "Why?", but the answer is always maddeningly difficult to discern. Gus Van Sant's Columbine-inspired Elephant, still the best film made on the subject, sidesteps that question in favor of an attempt to find meaning in the mundane details of the event as it plays out for the victims and the perpetrators.

Kevin approaches things from an entirely different angle: that of how an event like this impacts a violent child's mother. As the person who was there during Kevin's formative years, there is an assumption that Eva must have something to do with forming the terrifying figure that Kevin becomes. The question of whether or not she bears responsibility is just as difficult to answer as the question of why. Ramsay refuses to engage in futile attempts to answer either. She is, however, concerned with the obsessive need for closure inherent in the search for those answers. It's a need that consumes and tortures Eva every moment of her life.

At one point in the film, two missionaries knock on the door of Eva's small, run-down house and ask her if she knows where she's spending the afterlife. "Oh, yes I do as a matter of fact," she responds cheerfully. "I'm going straight to hell." It's delivered as a flippant comment to get the pair off her doorstep, but Eva is entirely serious. Moreover, she's not so much awaiting damnation as she is already living it.

In her clouded recollections, every incident of Kevin's upbringing is a chance for her to condemn herself: she was never loving enough to him; always too quick to anger; too focused on herself and not enough on him. Even her memory of the night of his conception plays back like a nightmare: lying in bed in the present, the room lit with a bloody hue thanks to the angry splash of red paint vengeful locals have thrown on the front of her house, she recalls a night of carefree, irresponsible sex with Franklin as ominous and foreboding, an effect heightened by Jonny Greenwood's dark score.

Ramsay is much more sympathetic to Eva than Eva is to herself, though. Even as she presents us with Eva's self-flagellating memories, the director refuses to let her shoulder the blame. Eva may have been short on patience, but Kevin is a more deeply disturbed individual than any of his mother's actions could possibly have created on their own. The film never attempts to resolve the nature/nurture debate regarding what makes a monster out of a young boy, but presents the prodigious intelligence, the blank detachment, and the manipulative ease of a sociopath that he displays even as a toddler. His only discernibly genuine emotion appears to be that of contempt for all those around him. "You don't look happy," Eva says to him on a prison visit near his 18th birthday. "Have I ever?" he responds incredulously.

Kevin is an extraordinary work from Ramsay, a filmmaker with an uncommon gift for getting at the inner psychology of her characters through striking visuals. Opening up a character's head and examining the contents without ever having her articulate them is no easy feat in filmmaking, and doing so through such a highly coordinated and dizzying attack of overlapping timelines requires absolute precision.

Ramsay uses the paint-stained house as a constant touchstone: Eva's time spent sanding and scrubbing gives her time to reflect and provides space for the flashbacks to gradually fill in the story. By the time the film returns to the present, it's clear that working her hands raw trying to remove the splash of red is an act of self-imposed penitence; the reminder of Kevin's bloody crime is on the house, the car, her face, her hands, and like Lady Macbeth, the spot simply will not come out.

The use of sound is similarly well-orchestrated. Sounds and voices overlap and bleed in and out of Eva's head from various points in the timeline. Familiar sounds are recontextualized until they taken on entirely new meanings. The rhythmic click of a garden sprinkler suddenly takes on the portentous weight of an orange in the Godfather movies. Songs are cleverly inserted to ironically contrast the scenes they accompany: Buddy Holly's sunny "Everyday" accompanies a nightmarish, slow-motion Halloween night drive past frightening trick-or-treaters; the Beach Boys' "In My Room" appears as Eva searches Kevin's bedroom; three jaunty skiffle tunes from '50s great Lonnie Donegan soundtrack otherwise dark situations.

And, of course, there's that recurring Washington Phillips song, which first appears unironically during the one genuinely loving moment Eva and Kevin share in the film. That lasts all of a couple of minutes though, and it's immediately reprised as Kevin shows his first signs of being legitimately dangerous; the shift in tone is even more disorienting with the same song on the soundtrack now given an entirely different connotation.

The film is able to zero in on a connection between Eva and Kevin that defies easy explanation. There is resentment, hatred, and manipulation, but there are also odd strains of respect and even love. They identify with each another in ways neither is prepared to admit, and that uneasy bond allows for surprising moments of reluctant tenderness in an otherwise brutal film. As Phillips plays Eva into the credits, the uneasy message being sent is that even if Kevin isn't Eva's joy, he's still fundamentally hers.