Director Lynne Ramsay's film, which opens in Denver next week, has been extravagantly praised by some reviewers, largely for Tilda Swinton's performance as the beleaguered mother of a budding, Eric-Harris-like sociopath. Others have found the movie grating, too splintered in structure or heavy on the symbolism; blood-red imagery gets more of a workout here than it did in Stanley Kubrick's version of The Shining.
Yet Kevin does manage to take the conversation about school violence in a new direction, thanks in part to its source material, Lionel Shriver's 2003 novel. Although clearly triggered by what happened at Columbine, Shriver's book isn't a thinly veiled recap of headlines but an imaginative journey into what the home life of a school killer might be like -- as told by an unreliable narrator, the killer's guilt-ridden and self-justifying mama.
Shriver has hailed the film as a brilliant adaptation of her work. It's far from perfect, but Ramsay does resist the usual kneejerk explanations for a problem child like Kevin (played at various ages by Rock Duer, Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller). We see absolutely nothing of his interactions at school and have no reason to believe he's bullied or settling scores with anyone other than his own family. What we do see is plenty that suggests Swinton's character never bonds with her son and comes to loathe and fear him at an early age, while feeling guilty about her dread -- emotions that Kevin picks up on while still a toddler and soon learns to manipulate for his own purposes. "Just because you're used to something doesn't mean you like it," he tells Mom in one scene. "You're used to me."
By the time Kevin reaches adolescence, it's apparent that his mother is tiptoeing around her son's utter contempt for all adult authority -- see the scene featured in the clip below -- while his father, played with a gift for the obtuse by John C. Reilly, remains fatally clueless.
What, if anything, does this kind of parental dynamic have to do with Columbine? Except for perfunctory police interviews, the parents of Eric Harris have never spoken publicly about Eric's home life. The Klebolds granted one softball interview to David Brooks of the New York Times and that was it. Depositions were taken of both sets of parents in lawsuits brought by victims' families, but whatever secrets were divulged remain under seal, by order of a federal judge, until the year 2027.
In the meantime, films like We Need to Talk About Kevin may not provide definitive, real-life answers, but they get the discussion going. Here's the clip:
More from our Follow That Story archive: "Forgiving my Columbine High School friend, Dylan Klebold."