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In Defense of Kevin

By Sayalee Karkare
February 24th 2012

We need to talk about Kevin, adapted by Lynne Ramsay from Lionel Shriver’s award-winning novel, is a dark film about a mother whose son embarks on a horrific killing spree at the local school. With Tilda Swinton as the mother and a magnificently repellent Era Miller as her son, the film opened to rave reviews at the Cannes last year and its omission from this years Oscar line up is a subject of much speculation and grouse amongst critics.

Coming at a time, as more and more parents, particularly mothers are being increasingly vocal about the pains of parenting, the sacrifices involved and the inevitable loss of control that accompanies raising a being with its own independent will, the film has struck a deep chord with many viewers. There are many dangers in parenting, the film seems to say, and possibly the worst is your child growing up to be a monster. A brief glance at the film’s reception highlights the many unspoken fears involved in raising children: Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian asks “what does an independent-minded, career woman do when she is landed with a nasty little boy, precisely the kind of smug competitive male she has spent her whole life trying to subdue and surpass?” The Vancouver Sun’s Vanessa Farquharson writes that “Regardless of where viewers stand in the nature/nurture debate, the truth is, raging sociopaths are often born to sweet mothers with the best of intentions, and no amount of unconditional love and jelly sandwiches will prevent them from going on sadistic killing sprees”.

This is essentially the central, unquestionable premise of the film – that Kevin is not just a “nasty little boy” but without a trace of doubt, a raging sociopath and an agent of destruction. At no point in the film, told from the point of view of the mother, does Kevin say or do anything remotely redeemable or just plain nice. Even as an infant, Kevin’s only purpose seems to be to torment his mother by spoiling fresh diapers and crying all the time. What appears to start out as a particularly bad case of post-natal depression develops into a yawning, unbridgeable chasm between mother and son. However, the chasm is not just between mother and son, but the chasm is literally between son and all of humanity, making it impossible for a viewer to identify with Kevin. Aside from the general criminal disposition of the adolescent Kevin, what is most alarming, is his duplicitous behaviour. There is one Kevin that is nice and kindly around the father and another, a malicious, masturbating, monster around his mother. The few lines that Kevin is given in this, for the most part, silent and heavily symbolic film, only seem to incriminate him further.

The stark satanization of Kevin destroys any pretense the film might make towards the nature-nurture debate, because as far as the film is concerned, Kevin was just born evil. And it is exactly this central premise on which the film is based that is extremely problematic. Personalities are not cast in stone, particularly not those of young people who are still growing and have much to experience. In overlooking this fact, the film takes a very one-dimensional approach to the very complex phenomenon of young people growing up to be very angry with the world.

But then, the film is not about Kevin. For the countless stories about alienated young adults, this is a story about alienated parents and how they view their unknowable children. Ramsay, speaking at Cannes, said that the film addresses “one of the last taboo subjects: You’re meant to instantly love your baby from the moment he’s born, but what if you don’t?” To love is eventually a choice and in a situation of a non-coerced pregnancy, it is not entirely unfair to expect a mother to love and nurture her child born of free will. To ease Tilda of the burden of loving her child, the child is depicted as being innately evil. While the “bad seed” premise may work for the horror genre, in films like The Omen, The Exorcist, The Children of the Corn, it is jarring in a film that attempts to take on the complex, multi-layered phenomenon of juvenile mass-murderers. From this point of view, the basic premise of the film, that evil just is, is doubly pernicious: First, it blocks any attempt to understand the real Kevin and second it creates a false sense of fatalism and hopelessness about the supposedly inevitable trajectory of evil. If one assumes that evil just is, then once it is upon us, there is not much we can do. In keeping with this position, there exists simply no agency in this movie – Tilda Swinton as the mother goes along with the unplanned pregnancy, lives unhappily in ill-suited domesticity and most importantly, neglects her son whose apparent “evilness” grows unchecked – because, as the film assumes, there is nothing that can be done about any of these events. This kind of depressing view of humanity lends itself to a visually striking but hopeless narrative, making the film a very hard watch.

So if the film is not about Kevin, not about parenting, one is tempted to assume that the film is about guilt – the guilt of a woman whose child turns out bad. But in the context of Kevin’s innate evilness, even this guilt is misplaced, because as per the definition of innate evil, the mother is not to blame in how her son turns out. Stemming from this misplaced premise, the heavy symbolism that the film resorts to in the form of crushed tomatoes, sliding red paint, the unrelated soundtracks, the endless guilt-drenched cleaning and scrubbing by the mother also seems similarly overdone and out of place. So if the film is not even about guilt, what exactly is the film about? BBC film critic Mark Kermode suggests that the film is redolent of a peculiar kind of pedophobia pervasive in modern society, so much so that older generations literally end up fearing young people. Rowen Pelling of the Telegraph also touches upon this theme, that the film works because “the manifestations of Kevin’s ‘otherness’ seem(ed) alarmingly familiar to many parents.”

In rapidly changing times, the generation gap, a term that belies the gravity of the deep divide between people from different age groups, is increasing at a phenomenal rate. With the young being more adept at navigating the constantly changing landscape, the old struggle helplessly in a world in which their tried-and-tested values and reference points simply don’t work any more. Whose fault that could be, is a many-layered question and Kevin alone certainly cannot be held accountable for it. In the end, what is most frightening about the film, is not Kevin, but the mother, that there are mothers (parents) who do not love their children. These are parents not from some starving third-world country, having to compete with their own offspring for survival, but mothers from the developed world with no ostensible reason to dislike their kids. Ultimately, the film works best as a reverse-proof to Goethe’s dictum about believing the best of people, particularly if you are their parent: Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be, and he will become as he can and should be.

On a final note, both the film and the book have been created by women born in the 60s and the 70s, neither of whom are real-life parents. In this aspect, the work violates the cardinal rule of writing: write about what you know. Interestingly, Shriver does have some familiarity with a school shooting incident, although she was on the receiving end and narrowly dodged a bullet. When the film is placed in the context of a near-victim, trying to understand how such a horrible thing came to place, Kevin’s “otherness” almost makes sense. But from the point of view of a mother, trying to understand her son, the film is sorely lacking.

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