Note: This column is spoiler free
I have made it clear that, for me, a movie to be truly scary it has to be realistic. I have to believe that the portrayal could potentially happen. I’m not afraid of chainsaw wielding, hockey mask wearing half-dead zombies, because I know, in real life, I will never meet one. That being said one movie so effectively horrified me that the mere mention of it still, years after I saw the movie, curdles my blood and sends chills up my spine: We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Well, in spite of all my highly rational thinking that I should not touch that DVD even while holding a ten foot pole and wearing a haz-mat suit, I placed We Need to Talk About Kevin into my DVD player, stuffed my thumb into my mouth, curled up into a fetal position while clutching tightly to my favorite teddy bear and managed to use a violently shaking hand to press the play button. I re-watched the movie for the sole purpose of writing this column. I am a professional. I face my fears for the cause of good journalism. You’re welcome!
When I first saw the film, a few years ago, I vividly remember turning to my brother, who was watching it with me, and exclaiming, “I just wish this would end.” That certainly was not because We Need to Talk About Kevin was a bad movie. Quite the opposite, it is one of the few movies I have ever seen in my life that builds tension so expertly that I wanted it all to be over. It was a roller coaster ride in which, after the seat belt apparatus buckled against my chest, I immediately began screaming, “Let me off.”
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a 2011 film based on a 2003 novel written by Lionel Shriver. The film was in development for years because, in short, BBC Films had trouble financing the thing. When it finally made it to the screen, it did so to critical acclaim, winning a host of awards and earning a Golden Globe nomination for lead actress Tilda Swinton. John C. Reilly is there as Kevin’s doting father. Ezra Miller records a surprising performance as an adolescent Kevin. A year later he would portray the outgoing and flamboyant stepbrother of Emma Watson’s Sam in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Two more opposite characters for Miller to play there could not be. The performance that made me cower in the corner of my bedroom convulsing in fright was turned in by Jasper Newell (as Kevin age 6-8), who previously was best known for his voicing of Baby Winky on the cartoon series Dora the Explorer. I amend my previous statement; more opposite characters for an actor to play there can be. How can eyes be that devilish? Leaping Lucifer, that crooked toothed grin!
The movie dances with the color red, a shade that can mean anger and death as well as love and passion. Kevin may have very well been conceived underneath the bright red juicy fruits of La Tomatina, a tomato festival in Spain. The tension mounts from there. We see a sweet girl, still a princess heading to the ball in spite of the eye patch she wears over one of her pretty green eyes. Why is she forced to wear an eye patch? I immediately know I will not like the answer to that question.
The film’s score oscillates between Hitchcockian beats and tones of suspense with upbeat and happy pop melodies, and this works in a perverse way. It adds to the tension while augmenting the insanity. Meanwhile natural sound moves through the film like an arrow in flight: the screams of a woman in labor, the cries of an angry infant, a jackhammer to drown out the never-ending soundtrack of a Damien in-waiting, the complete and utter silence of devastating loneliness, and the snaking hiss of a sprinkler spouting the venom of suburban madness.
We see a home caked in the red paint of anger. We feel the eyeballs always lurking. Brief and simple moments of joy end as quickly as a slap to the face. The memories remain though: rain-soaked kisses, levitating ecstasy (whether in an orgy in Spain or alone with a lover, tangled together in bedroom sheets). A life once filled with promise is now soaked in blood red pain.
Our eyes are that of a mother’s numbed by unthinkable grief. He son may be the one incarcerated but she is locked in her own prison of devastation. The walls and bars that incapacitate her are forged from her very own dead eyes, sleeping pills, half empty bottles of wine and the cold stares from strangers who are now veteran soldiers in the army of agony.
On Halloween, the ghouls and ghosts come out to play, the costumed menace play-acting in its annual nightly nightmare. But this mother does not need a costume to be a ghoul or a ghost or a goblin or a leper. Everyday, when she walks outside, she is a monster. The plasma-colored paint covering her face doesn’t wash off. Her haunting doesn’t end on the stroke of midnight on November 1st. It always remains, passing along with time: the blood red numbers turning on a digital alarm clock.
Scars don’t heal. Broken crayons can never be put back together. Idle hands are not the devil’s playground. Instead, the devil has a playground of unholiness to accomplish with his busy hands. He is smashing cereal, destroying mommy’s room with a paint filled squirt-gun, balling up pieces of bread at a fancy restaurant, placing gnawed up cuticles on the table-tops of jail house meeting rooms, filling clean diapers with fresh feces purely out of spite and shooting plastic arrows at the woman that once gave him her womb.
Is there only malice found in the silent prison visits, in the petulance of a vicious child and the cold hatred of a mother? Is fury the only thing found in the unthinkable actions of an adolescent and the horror of a mother who must find a way to carry on in the wake of those actions? Or maybe, like the blood-colored paint thrown against a pale white house, one thing can never be removed: the ultimate love of a mother for her son.
When Kevin’s opus is finally revealed, we hear screams. They are screams of pain, yet we also hear a hint of mania. It’s the kind of sound that is expelled from the mouths of teenage girls after seeing their favorite pop idol. Some individuals turn sadists like Kevin into icons. It is a reminder that we as a society give people like Kevin exactly what they want: recognition. They will do everything they can to accomplish this desire to be immortalized. A sad part of me is reminded that this can be a motivation in itself for such deranged people. They are now a part of history. They are oblivious to the hurt they’ve caused or the damage they’ve done. They want to be a part of that fabric (and now are), even if it’s that unseemly strand that we attempt to pull off or to trim like we do our fingernails. At the end, Kevin, and his kind, is the hangnail of humanity.