We Need to Talk About Kevin is a 2011 film based on Lionel Shriver’s best-selling book. I still haven’t got round to reading the novel, but I’ve long been intrigued by the way Shriver ‘broke through’ as an author after publishing half a dozen books which made (relatively) little impact. She’s indicated that this isn’t because her best-seller was necessarily a much better book than its predecessors, but rather because her story-line just happened to capture public attention at the right moment. In the first place, the book’s reputation spread by word of mouth, always a powerful recommendation.
The film stars Tilda Swinton, whom I’ve seen in one or two less than engrossing movies over the years. Here, though, she is at her very best, playing the part of Eva, mother of Kevin, who turns into a spree killer. The film charts the troubled relationship between mother and son in an unflinching way, and the switches between past and present are handled much more effectively than is often the way.
Kevin takes pleasure in hurting others, and it becomes increasingly clear that he is capable of inflicting appalling cruelty. His father is complacent, but Eva’s slowly growing horror as she becomes more and more clear about her son’s true nature is skilfully portrayed.
Most people, including me, struggle to understand what motivates a spree killer such as Kevin. We find their mass murders appalling, but it is almost impossible to know for sure how further outrages – the Colorado killings are a recent example – can be prevented. Gun control is a big issue in the US, of course, but even the UK’s post-Dunblane society is not immune from these terrible tragedies, which so often end up with the killer dead as well as his victims, as with the horrific murder spree of Derrick Bird in Cumbria a couple of years ago. This film, and no doubt the book, offers no easy answers, but the portrayal of Kevin and his family background still struck me as insightful, as well as chilling.