We need to talk about the elephant in the room here. Had We Need to Talk About Kevin gotten its wide release six months or so later, it's possible it might not have gotten a release at all in 2012. This is a tense and mentally deleterious film that approaches, quite directly, the motivations of a mass murderer -- in this case young Kevin. After all, if moviegoers can't handle a few Los Angeles gangsters shooting up a theater in the wake of the Aurora, Col. tragedy, then how would they handle seeing a James Holmes-type brought to life in chilling fashion.
I couldn't stop thinking of Holmes for the entirety of the film. I'm a movie lover, I went to The Dark Knight Rises less than 24 hours after he monstrously took so many lives, and though the Aurora shootings didn't touch me directly, I was still deeply affected by them. When a lone gunman like Holmes earns grisly notoriety, you can't help but wonder why? What could possibly motivate someone to extinguish so many lives? How can the families of the victims possibly cope? And what about the family of the person committing these heinous acts? How do they come to grips with their loved one's deeds?
We Need to Talk About Kevin tries to answer all those questions and is fairly persuasive and comprehensive in doing so. The story is told solely from the perspective of Kevin's mother Eva Khatchadourian, who is played by Tilda Swinton. It picks up post-tragedy, though it's not clear exactly what the tragedy was until the very end of the film -- only that Kevin has done something terrible. Kevin is in prison. Eva, all alone, is living in a dilapidated house -- an outcast in town due to the unspecified horrors committed by her son and a burgeoning wine-and-pills addict.
Eva's end established, we bounce back to the beginning -- Eva's romance with future husband Franklin Plaskett (John C. O'Reilly), her pregnancy and the birth of Kevin, their move from New York City to the suburbs, Kevin's childhood, the birth of a second child, Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich), many years later. Interspersed throughout are vignettes that drive home the misery of Eva's post-massacre existence. Most in town despise her, and those who don't try to use/abuse her grief for some sort of personal gain.
The flashbacks mostly focus on Kevin -- the direct cause of Eva's present-day misery. There's a nature vs. nurture question about mass murderers that I didn't mention above, but is central to the film. Was Kevin destined to be a spawn of evil from the day he was born, or was there something more his parents or someone else could have done to prevent his outburst of violence? You never get a definitive answer from We Need to Talk About Kevin, but who would really want one anyway?
Kevin is wretched as a toddler, at six years old, at eight years old and as a teenager. He is spiteful and cruel to everyone. Particularly in adolescence, he is amoral and narcissistic. It's almost impossible to understand what makes him tick because, well, he doesn't follow any of the basic societal rules that most human beings do aside from wearing clothes. Still, Eva is hardly a perfect parent. She is needy, emotionally distant and even physically abusive in one memorable instance. Rock Duer, Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller, the actors who played Kevin at different ages, all do an excellent job of portraying him as a Damien-esque monster, but it's not as if Kevin has a mother who's going to love him out of being a sociopath. On the flip side, O'Reilly's Franklin is forgiving of Kevin's obviously evil nature to a fault.
No easy answers ... like I said.
Most of the mass murderers we see on the silver screen are cartoonish -- Leatherface, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Kreuger. There are no masks here and no crass one-liners as a scantily-clad teen is hacked to death. I enjoy those cinematic mass murderers, probably more than I should. I didn't exactly enjoy a minute of We Need to Talk About Kevin, probably because this is a much more realistic portrait of a cold, inhuman, prolific killer. But I was captivated, both by the subject matter and by the impressive performances, particularly from Swinton, who is becoming one of the best actresses of this generation.