MOMS’N’ARROWS PT2: WE NEED TO fuckin’ TALK ABOUT fuckin’ KEVIN!!!
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is a harrowing description of an extreme potentiality of parenthood whose reputation has scared a lot of people away from ever seeing it—and which I watched three times last week. None of these were the first time I’d seen it. I’d seen it before, failed to forget anything about it, and when I picked the proverbial scab off my wounds last week, I found that I could not stop watching it head to tail. While it is certainly traumatic, and while we all know how trauma appeals to me, the truth is that there is something about KEVIN that I find strangely reassuring. Allow me to explain.
Lynne Ramsay’s astonishing adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel of the same name—hang on a second though. What the fuck is going on with Lynne Ramsay? She’s like, insanely good at making movies. Why isn’t she just constantly making movies? The 46 year old Glasgow native has exactly 7 directorial credits to her name, four of which are shorts. Like why the fuck isn’t she just constantly making movies? Every one of this film’s 112 minutes is an if-you-blink-you-miss-it moment. The story essentially takes place over a week in the life of Tilda Swinton, of which she spends each day trying to scrub a hostile spray of red paint off the front of her house, while she analyzes the onrushing tragedy that began with the conception of her psychopathic son, and must come to some sort of resolution when she confronts him behind bars. The mercurial and frequently red-drenched imagery is deliberate, complex, and relentlessly changing. The hyperintelligent sound design AND the soundtrack vacillate between hypnotic and hair-raising, often shifting through time and space out of pace with the photography. There isn’t a shred of padding in the storytelling, nor a single formal element that settles for filler or pure functionality. And of course, the acting, from every member of the cast, is really beyond the pale.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is a movie that, in my rich fantasy life, every prospective parent should be forced to watch by the government. Chic, cosmopolitan travel writer Tilda Swinton gives up her peripatetic lifestyle to roost with John C. Reilly in the suburbs. Reilly, a born family man, cannot conceive (huh huh) of Swinton’s unusually agonizing pregnancy, and entirely fails to recognize the antagonistic relationship between his wife and their infant son Kevin (later played by Ezra Miller), which appears to be calculated carefully from the moment of his birth. The little boy’s theatrical evilness, only apparent to his mother, increases in intensity and impact as he grows older, leading up to a gruesome event that could have been prevented had he not hidden his true nature so skillfully from everyone but her.
Now, back to my bizarre assertion that there is something reassuring about this story. People in general—or at least, breeders—have a delusional idea that their children somehow belong to them. That they can be “cooler” parents than their own parents were, that they can raise cooler kids than their peers will, that they can guarantee themselves intimacy and gratitude from another human being just by giving birth to it. While it is obvious that a child can’t help imprinting on a parent to some degree, the truth is that nobody belongs to anybody, not even children to their mothers. Any living creature can become any other sort of living creature, not only because of its experience of being alive in the world, but because of its internal chemical landscape. Often, the more the parent tries to assert authority, and material and emotional debt, over their child, the more the spawn responds with various declarations of its own independence. We call this “rebellion”, as if everything the child ever does is aimed at the family, but these expressions are real statements of the truth, that the child belongs to itself. If you can’t stand to expect that, I don’t believe you should consider breeding.
Now, at the risk of contradicting myself, it is also ultimately true that in spite of all the enmity and violence, Kevin and his mother share an intimacy unmatched by any other person in their lives. That Kevin’s rage is chastely directed only at his mother has its own kind of peculiar sweetness. He doesn’t appear to have any friends, and he treats his father to a shallow masquerade of filial piety. On the other hand, although his behavior hardly resembles love, Kevin and his mother know everything about one another. Through a few editorial tricks, plus hair and makeup, Kevin’s appearance is carefully matched to that of his mother. On the rare occasion that they attempt to socialize, there isn’t a shred of pretense between them; there is rather an adult frankness. Everything Kevin does is designed to provoke her and dominate her attention, in fact, to infiltrate every aspect of her life—in fact, he seizes upon her reading him Robin Hood as an opportunity to tie her causally to the brutal archery-enabled massacre that he will commit later in life. Mother and son are deeply close in some way that many apparently functional families never experience. So, to sum it up, I find WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN realistic about childbearing in a way that offers a much-needed respite from the narcissistic fantasies that pervade breeder culture. On the other hand, though, the strange stability and respect that characterizes Kevin’s relationship with his mother helps me survive the series of traumas that make up the narrative.
I admit that I have a few questions about intentionality, that I could probably stand to ask of authoress Lionel Shriver. There a suggestion (that I choose to ignore) that Tilda Swinton was somehow “asking for it”: she knows she would rather be traveling the world than raising a brood, she runs off on poor sweet John C. Reilly, and she foolishly conceives with him as an act of contrition. Culturally, Americans have grown accustomed to blaming single moms for society’s ails (there’s a million horror movies about that, don’t ask me to shoehorn titles into this overlong piece), making it a little too easy to see Swinton as an enemy of family values whose wayward behavior incurs the lifelong wrath of her son. I would really prefer not to believe that this is an organic part of the story, that I’m just poisoned by my culture, but I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention my suspicions.
On a lighter note, what the fuck is going on with John C. Reilly? I mean like John C. Reilly is just amazing. He can literally do anything. He doesn’t even have “phases of his career”, he is equally capable of being wonderful in shitty Will Ferrel movies, and in difficult art haus cinema, and he has been since we collectively became aware of him. I have a friend who worked on TALLADEGA NIGHTS, who told me that Reilly was so much funnier than Will Ferrel, even in just existing on set, that it totally blew everyone’s minds and was borderline awkward. I’ve been repeating this story for years, and came to think of it as simply emblematic of my opinion of John C. Reilly, but recently, finally, I have had to come to terms with the fact that I am actively obsessed with John C. Reilly. I don’t know what to do with myself, because this doesn’t really make me feel obligated to watch everything he’s in. I just think he’s amazing. I’m just dealing with it.
Tune in for PT 3 of this series, with more moms (sort of) and less arrows (but lots of other stuff) in GOODNIGHT MOMMY!