movie: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

I just happened across this movie the other day. I really enjoyed the book by Lionel Shriver – pre-blog, sorry, but I’ll recap here very briefly. The book is an epistolary novel, meaning it comes to us in the form of a series of letters from Eva to her husband Franklin. Their family has clearly suffered a tragedy of sorts, which goes unnamed until the very end, and the source of that tragedy, equally clearly, is their son Kevin. Eva is trying to process her difficulty with Kevin, and to figure out where the blame for what’s wrong with him lies. Was it in him from the start? Or was she a bad mother, and turned him bad? She felt the evil in him while he was still in the womb – or maybe she was just a non-nurturing mother. To me, that was the overarching question of the book: where did the badness come from? And it’s an interesting question. At the risk of sounding creepy, I guess I also found it kind of refreshing to see a presentation of motherhood that wasn’t all roses, sunshine, and easy bonding. Not all readers, or bloggers, enjoyed the book (by a long shot!), but I did. And I found its big reveal surprising. Important tip: if you want to enjoy the book, don’t let anybody spoil it for you! (No spoilers here.)

So, the movie. I was interested in two things: how well would the movie communicate the profound creepiness of Kevin the little boy? And how would the epistolary format difficulty be overcome? As in the case of book-to-movie The Lovely Bones, which in book form is narrated from heaven, the voice of Eva in her letters is difficult to translate into movie form unless you’re going to have Eva’s character voiceover the whole thing, which doesn’t sound appealing. (Qualifier: I only read and never watched The Lovely Bones. Apparently the film met with mixed reviews.)

As to the first question, they made Kevin creepy as hell, which was perfect. His manipulation of one parent while showing his dark side to the other reminded me of that terrifying woman-child in Orphan (shudder). I thought the toddler Kevin was great; before he started speaking, he would glower at his mother until I thought surely he was going to blurt obscenities. But this is just a little boy!

Eva with little Kevin

And as to the second question, how to translate the epistolary format, the film took an arty, quiet, disjointed approach. There may be a technical term for this style – I am so very far from being a film buff. It reminded me of Punch Drunk Love, that outlier of Adam Sandler’s ouvre, which is far less tragic than this one, but what can I say, I don’t see a lot of movies. The chronology jumped around. And this raised a whole new question for me, one I can’t answer. Is the final big reveal as surprising in the movie as it is in the book? Since I knew it going in, I can’t say.

Throughout, the movie relies heavily on the repetition of one highly (screamingly) symbolic color, red, and is extremely quiet. Dialogue is very sparse. It drags along a little, but that might be part of the arty nature of it. (Short attention spans, beware.) It expresses terror in a whisper – an awfully effective technique. It communicated the same discomfort, questions, and alarm that the book did, and like the book, it’s not for everyone. But I think this film does what it set out to do.

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