Eva (Tilda Swinton) is working late at the travel agency when a coworker rushes into her office panicked. It seems that her son Kevin’s high school is on the news. Someone is on a rampage, killing students and faculty and the police have the school surrounded.
Eva grabs her purse and heads straight to the school, terrified for her son’s safety. She pushes her way through the crowd gathered shouting, pleading, “Kevin! Has anyone seen Kevin!”
And then it hits her like a stone inevitably sinking to the bottom of a pond. The heavy duty bicycle lock the police are cutting away from the front doors is one of the very same that Kevin had proudly ordered off the Internet just days before.
When the lock is cut away and the doors swing open, Kevin strolls out, surrendering immediately and staring Eva directly in the eyes as if saying, “I did it all for you, mom.” Eva slowly recedes away from the crowd, a mob she’ll still be facing two years later when most of the terrific movie We Need to Talk About Kevin takes place.
The Columbine school shooting has inspired a number of movies with the best known being, perhaps, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. That movie allowed us to spend time getting to know the students who are gunned down at its climax. We feel the pain of the bullets with unusual, uncomfortable intimacy.
Kevin allows us to get to know a different sort of victim, a killer’s mother—and her struggle to put the pieces together goes beyond uncomfortable to the very heart of nurturing.
She wonders if she was heartless when faced with Kevin’s colic as a baby. She holds him at arm’s reach, she pushes him all over town in a stroller, and finally parks the stroller beside a jackhammer in the middle of an intersection, finding the shattering of concrete soothing compared to Kevin’s screams. Later, she watches her husband (John C. Reilly) calmly cradle Kevin in his arms. Is this where she went wrong? Was she a terrible mom who shouldn’t have had a baby?
As a young boy, Kevin doesn’t talk much. He doesn’t interact with others well. Eva sits him down on the floor and attempts to roll a ball back and forth, but it turns into a battle of wills. As Eva recalls these moments (seen in flashback like most of the movie), you can hear the gears turning: “Was that where I screwed up? I couldn’t even manage something as simple as playing with my boy.”
When Kevin was a teenager—shortly before the shooting—Eva attempted mother/son bonding—miniature golf followed by dinner for two. But by then the brooding teenager (played unforgettably by Ezra Miller) is immune to any such attempt and she is resigned as well. Their golf game consists of one line of dialog. Eva says, “You win.” During dinner, she eats and talks, he observes and taunts that she’ll probably slide over and put her arm around his shoulder next.
The movie uses a clever device. Eva’s house has been splattered in the night with red paint. (She still lives in the town where the tragedy took place, seeming to welcome punishment.) She painstakingly and painfully removes the paint as the movie progresses. At the end, she has freed herself from her scarlet prison and is tentatively ready to move on.
Her memories have had a cumulative effect. She realizes that nature simply won the battle this time and that she did the best she could with Kevin.
(Todd Ford has been a film nut since 1981. He watches far too many movies through Netflix and enjoys a home life with his wife, two daughters, two dogs and five cats.)