We Need To Talk About Kevin
C’mon, all you honest parents out there, you know who you are. You started out believing that a child is like a blank slate, where all you had to do was supply the right influence, the proper environment, the loving family, the happy home, the stable context, the careful nurture, and voila, you can’t help but produce a well-adjusted, sensitive, considerate child, right? Who would naturally turn into a productive, compassionate, competent, emotionally mature adult, right?
OK, for all you good Presbyterians out there, you can always take comfort that the founder of our beloved but beleaguered denomination, John Calvin, was so convinced in the theological truth of our intrinsic evil (and therefore innate need for the salvation offered by the grace of God through Jesus Christ) that he was convinced of the “utter depravity” of our very nature. We cannot help but sin (and therefore need God’s redemption). We are inherently sinners, weak and selfish, and cannot make ourselves good no matter how hard we try.
Well, if that’s our theological tradition as Presbyterians, how do we approach childrearing? Do we really believe that babies are born into sinfulness, and must be somehow cajoled, trained, and constantly but firmly reminded to even affix a thin veneer of civility on an otherwise transparently selfish personality? Or would we even admit that maybe, just maybe, there are some children out there who are such reprobates, so “untrainable” that they will inevitably do the deplorable, and commit the despicable?
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is the raising of Kevin by an apparently loving, “normal” family. Dad, Franklin (John C. Reilly) is hard-working, a good provider, doting to his child at home, and at least attempts to be considerate of his wife, Eva (Tilda Swinton) as well. But Kevin, even as a toddler (Rock Duer) is willfully disobedient to his mother and cheerfully duplicitous with his Dad. When he becomes a child (Jasper Newell) he fights royal battles with his mother at every turn--- even over potty training, long past the age when this should have been resolved. He doesn’t make friends. He’s destructive of things and inconsiderate of people. He won’t be taught “manners” or “politeness.” He’s willfully disobedient, except when his Dad comes home, causing, of course, a rift between Mom and Dad, which secretly delights him.
Now, as a teenager (Ezra Miller), Kevin and Mom are in open warfare when they are by themselves. He doesn’t even attempt to hide his contempt for her. He’s extremely angry—and jealous---when Mom has a “surprise” baby girl, and he’s cruel to his sister at every opportunity, especially when Mom is looking the other way. The only time he demonstrates any enthusiasm for anything is when his father gives him a bow and arrow for his birthday. Then he graduates quickly from the rubber-tipped play set to the real thing, where it takes considerable strength to pull those deadly arrows to their target. At first, of course, he confines his targets to the inanimate. But somehow we’re not at all surprised that he’s now intensely curious about what it would feel like if his targets were human.
It’s every parent’s nightmare that the school where their child attends would suddenly and tragically become the place where a mass murderer has struck without warning. It’s terrifying beyond words for any parent to think that their child might be the mass murderer.
Tilda Swinton’s performance is nothing short of riveting, in a role where the viewers don’t want to sympathize, for fear it could happen to them, or someone they love. She’ll receive some well-deserved recognition for her nuanced, layered performance that doesn’t descend into histrionics, only a quiet desperation that burns from the inside out.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Interim Pastor, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas