(Warning: the following article contains spoilers.)
Horror films are usually defined by gore, macabre themes and preternaturally scary monsters or villains, i.e., Halloween, The Exorcist, Poltergeist, etc. The aforementioned films are classic examples that define the horror genre, and some of my favorites, but sometimes real horror supersedes cinematically constructed horror. On a visceral level, horror films should evoke the sense of terror, disgust, reveal our hidden fears and often disturb us for several nights. We Need to Talk About Kevin is not a typical horror film – and I would understand if people fervently disagreed with this labeling – but I see it as a modern-day tale of horror that relates the fear and dread of our generation.
Often when we look back at the movie-made serial killers that at one point plagued our dreams – Freddy, Jason, Leatherface, Michael Myers – our fear is soon replaced with nostalgia. The sense of panic begins to dissipate when imitation masks are sold every year at retail stores – the ubiquity of seeing the image of such characters repeatedly desensitize us. This is not to say I don’t get scared in the theater anymore. But the beauty of cinema is that we can turn off that celluloid world when we leave the theater, knowing it’s a pictorial fabrication. What I find so disturbing about We Need to Talk About Kevin is that it doesn’t allow us that luxury.
The films stars Tilda Swinton as a jaded mother, struggling to hold on to her nurturing instincts as she raises Kevin (Ezra Miller) who, let’s just say, isn’t the greatest kid in the world. His behavior progressively begins wearing Eva down, but she can’t turn to her husband (John C. Reilly) for guidance, he insists Kevin is just a boy. Kevin smoothly manipulates those around him into believing everything is okay, so Eva bears the burden of carrying a quiet reservation about her son until one day his behavior escalates to a point that will leave Eva questioning where she went wrong.
For those who haven’t seen We Need to Talk About Kevin, you can deduce that Kevin goes postal at his high school. Virginia Tech, Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Fort Hood, New Town, Tucson, Santa Barbara, and most recently Ottowa and Marysville-Pilchuck are illustrative of the real horrors that happen too often in America and other parts of the world. The film delves into the contemporary fears of Americans, who either struggle to cope with the aftermath of such devastation or struggle to understand the “why?”The act itself, which we never see, is not the terrifying part of the film, it’s the lead up to the act, or rather his upbringing that is chilling. The film dabbles into the nature v. nurture debate, showing Eva’s negative behavior towards her son. She seems to have a great dislike for being a mother and in one scene tells her toddler that she’d much rather be in Italy than changing his diaper. The film doesn’t delve into the mental health issue as much as I’d like it to, but it points it out.
A little personal insight about me: I went to a high school that was infamous for a shooting that happened in 1992. A former student walked onto campus armed with guns and bullets, killed three students and one teacher and injured several more. He currently sits in jail, awaiting the death penalty. Every year, teachers who were there when the shooting happened would recount in detail the heinous things they witnessed, instilling in us the fear that it could happen again. They made a movie about it starring Freddie Prinze Jr. – his character was based on my junior English teacher who was a hostage that managed to calm the gunman down during the ordeal (we all thought he was crazy for coming back to teach there).
There is no blood or guts in the film, but director Lynne Ramsay playfully splashes the indicative color on her canvas as much as possible. And there is nothing spewing in or out of any orifices other than the vitriol that oozes out of the characters’ mouths that seem to make a symbolic wound that festers and grows into hostility. The film won’t induce any jumps or thrills, but it should be unnerving to watch knowing there’s no killer waiting in the shadows, because he’s integrated into society, sitting at the dinner table with the rest of the family.But isn’t that, after all, the mark of a great killer – that they’re victims are unsuspecting?
We Need to Talk About Kevin is not scary in the conventional sense, but it confirms one of my worst fears and still has me thinking about it. Sometimes the scariest killers are the ones we can’t identify simply from their facade. It’s what made characters like Norman Bates so lethal. That’s why there won’t be any masks, costumes or festive adornments emulating Kevin. He looks too much like the rest of us.