We Need to Talk About Kevin, the film version of the book of the same name, about a school massacre perpetrator and his mother. The story starts with the mother Eva becoming pregnant. She is ambivalent about motherhood. Her son Kevin does not respond to her mediocre attempts to bond or soothe. As he grows just a little older, it becomes clear that he is not normal, perhaps even deeply disturbed.
The film is no chronological and skips between before and after the massacre. Her life before was first young and exciting New York then a downgrade (in her mind) to a suburban estate with her growing family. Her life after is lonely squalor where she is the victim of all vandalism, violence, and sexual antagonism meant to, what? Shame her into denouncing her son? Some of the perpetrators seem to be family to the victims of the massacre, but others apparently are just looking to participate in socially sanctioned aggression and exploitation (her co-worker, after a rebuffed unwelcome advance, snarls "Where do you get off, you stuck up bitch? Do you think anyone else is gonna want you now?"). Her life is ruined. The second part flashes back to her early struggles with motherhood, then power struggles with her son, as evidenced in part by his refusal to be potty trained. In a fit of rage over him deliberately soiling his diaper after she just changed it, she throws him and breaks his arm. When recalling the moment later, he tells her "It’s the most honest thing you ever did. Do you know how they potty train cats? They stick their noses in their own shit. They don’t like it. So they use the box." After coming home from the hospital, he lies to his father about the broken arm, saying he fell off the diaper changing table. He then extorts his mother with the threat of exposure in order to get his way.
She is obviously not mother of the year, but who could be with a son so cold and apparently evil? That at least seems to be the suggestion of the first half of the film -- that there's nothing else she could have done better and we're supposed to feel sorry for her because she was unlucky enough to have birthed a demon. By the middle of the movie, we know what is going to happen, we are just filling in details. We get a little more realistic characterization of the son. The mother puts a cd marked "I love you" into her computer, which infects it with a virus (and all computers from her office connected to the network). She asks, why would you have something like this, what's the point? "There is no point. That's the point." She makes fun of fat people at a rare mother son excursion, to which he points out "You know, you can be kind of harsh sometimes."
Eva: "You’re one to talk."
Kevin: "Yeah, I am. I wonder where I got it."
Apart from a brief childhood sickness, when young Kevin cuddles with her while she reads him a book, their relationship is strained. Oddly, she is shown devotedly visiting him in prison, even though they hardly exchange a word. What's her motivation? Penance? Curiosity? Duty? Not love, is it? We also discover that although she lives a lonely, isolated existence, she has at least in part chosen this life (still lives in the same town despite the antagonism, avoids her mother's plea that she visit for the holidays). Finally, we see that her new home has a bedroom for him with all of his things, including his clothes that she regularly washes and irons to keep fresh. Why? On the second anniversary of the massacre she again visits Kevin in prison. He is about to be transfered to an adult facility. His head is poorly shaved. His face is bruised. He is not his usual confidently unapologetic self. She tells him he doesn't look happy. "Have I ever?"With their time running out, she finally confronts him:
Kevin: I used to think I knew. Now I'm not so sure. [pause]
Prison guard: Time's up.
They hug, Eva finally apparently reaching that place of love and acceptance for her son that had for so long eluded her.
I liked a lot of things about the film. There are some very accurate portrayals of sociopathic behavior. For instance, although Kevin never feels remorse about the massacre, he does show signs of regret -- an acknowledgment that perhaps he has miscalculated or misunderstood the true nature of life, including a sense of permanence of some consequences that many teenagers fail to intuit.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the way it contrasts moral certainty (portrayed as ugly behavior) with self-doubt (portrayed as a sign of hope and the possibility of change). When the mother is at her most self-assured, Kevin hates her the most. It's only when she was weak enough to break his arm that he respects her for being honest. And Kevin's only redeeming moments are when he is sick and at the end when he is unsure whether the massacre was a good idea. These are stark contrasts to the moral indignation of the mother as she repeatedly tells her son off, the son as he repeatedly tells her everything is meaningless and that she is a hypocrite, the townspeople as they rally around to collectively dehumanize her (a small nod to the Scarlet Letter?), the husband who tells her she is a bad mother, etc. The problem with making these sorts of comprehensive judgments about a person are not that they aren't founded in truth, but that people naturally defy such pat assessments. They're simply too dynamic and life is too complicated (and subject more to chance than choice) to say with any degree of certainty that "so-an-so would never do something like that," or even "I would never do something like that." Moral certainty is often based in truth, but it denies so much more than it ever considers.
The film is also a true tragedy in that despite Kevin being particularly sinister and Eva particularly cold, there is nothing inherently wrong with either of these characters. Put in different circumstances, Eva could have been a wonderful mother and Kevin could have channeled his machiavellian traits to more pro-social activities that would have made an equal splash. The problems were in the way they interacted with each other. They were locked in a death struggle, a double drowning. In a desperate effort to ensure that the one would not unduly rule the other's life, they spent all of their time reacting to each other instead of just quietly going about their own lives. I see this with victims on this site too -- becoming so obsessed with making sure that someone does not unjustly assert their will on you that you allow your whole world to revolve around thoughts of the other person. They were both so focused on winning particular battles with each other, thinking that the sum of small wins would add up to a gestalt of victory. They did not consider the possibility that these might be Pyrrhic, or that sometimes when you win, you lose. Because neither Eva nor Kevin were willing to bend their vision of the world to accommodate other viewpoints, they were both eventually broken.