This weekend, I watched We Need to Talk about Kevin
. I'd not read the book, but I knew, vaguely, the storyline: mother feels antipathy toward her first child, insists that there is something wrong with him, which everyone else blithely dismisses, and in the end, she is proven terribly right. But was it a self-fulfilling prophecy?
J left the room halfway through the movie because he said it was too depressing. It's pretty clear from the first few minutes that something awful has happened to this woman, this town, and the story is working its way to what and how, if not why, it happened. J's attitude was, why endure this slow-motion tragedy?
Personally, I found the performances by Tilda Swinton and all the boys who play her son to be absolutely riveting. Here is an awesome photo of Swinton with the four versions of Kevin:
Note the haircuts, how the boys are all "behind bars." The oldest, Ezra Miller, is especially terrifying, partly because he is so beautiful. Like an angel. Deadly and distant, a sizzling permafrost. And he usually wears white.
Incidentally, that second image is Kevin shortly after he's poisoned someone.
True, there are plot points that niggle: if the mother so hated her son, why did she end up being his primary caregiver? who took care of him when she went away for two months to work on a travel book? and nobody else's internal alarms went off about this boy? etc., etc. To work, the movie focuses on mother and son so tightly as to be isolationary, like a prison *and* a womb. And that's why I was able to watch the movie to its conclusion, and even feel hopeful at the end. The director makes us feel that no one else is quite real. The same thing that makes the boy a monster, really. No one else matters, not if these two people can finally work out some understanding of one another.
(We see this happen a lot in possession movies: the victim, usually a girl or young woman, undergoes terrible tortures so that the male lead can have his epiphany. In We Need to Talk about Kevin
, the mother is emotionally tortured, but it's other people who pay dearly so she and her son can connect. This may be a worthwhile departure from the norm, but it's not really what I'm concerned with right now.)
Granted, there's the possibility of voyeurism as motivation to watch the movie to the end. Like the train wreck you can't look away from, rubbernecking at a car crash to make sure it's not you who's dead, you might persist until the end credits because you want to know just how bad this boy is. But, honestly? We know this story, and there's nothing sensationalistic about the film. So if you hold out just for that, you're not rewarded. And I wouldn't say there's catharsis at the end.
Marion Wrenn had an essay in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of American Poetry Review
titled "Catastrophist." She compared Brueghel's painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
, noting its portrayal of benign indifference to Icarus's death, to the accidental death of professional wrestler Owen Hart
in front of a live audience. (Icarus is the pair of legs in the water at lower right corner.)
Wrenn argues that pro wrestling fans "enact the opposite of benign indifference. They are deeply engaged in the choreography of disaster....'the spectacle of suffering'." Rather than being stupid, as the stereotype would have us believe, the fans are quite aware of the staging and usually delight in the blurred line between authenticity and spectacle. Wrenn likens it to a magic show: the pledge, the turn, the prestige.
But Hart's death was horrific and destabilizing to fans. The live audience struggled to make sense of the events while not wanting to believe they'd just watched a man die. The pay-per-view audience struggled differently: they knew from the (initially also perplexed) announcers that Hart was dead, but supposedly there was no footage of the death. Wrenn writes, "It's still hard to watch. But now it's got the traces of the tragic, in the classical sense: we hope that he's not dead, know he is, pity the folks who are finding out in front of us. We are secure in our knowledge, the unfolding narrative cannot traumatize us as it did when new...but there's something under the surface that needs to be re-seen
." [italics mine]
I think it is this sense that we still have something to learn, something we halfway know, that determines if we choose to watch a catastrophe play out in art. Obviously it's a different level of catastrophe, but I, for one, cannot watch humiliation comedy because I'm overwhelmed by empathy. I can't get past what I would feel like if I were in that situation in order to learn anything. (And I daresay, typically there is nothing to learn from these scenarios.) There is no catharsis for me, and no lesson learned.
I *can* watch Tilda Swinton's character face-off with her son because (1) I identify with [am forced to identify with?] the "wrong" characters; wrong in the sense that, if these events really happened, I'd sympathize with the victims, not the perpetrator, and also in the sense that a mother who does not bond with her child--as I did not at first and Swinton's character never does--are automatically considered "wrong" or suspect by society. And thus (2) I feel like I have something to learn from the film. Still no catharsis, but there's the hope of intellectual payoff.
Days later, I am still processing what I saw. I think watching the catastrophe play out was worthwhile. The ending felt "right" to me. I can see being that mother and doing the things she did in the aftermath. I can see doing penance for something that isn't quite one's fault, accepting a burden that will never lighten anyone else's load because that is the only way to endure. If there are more questions than answers, at least they are the kind of questions worth considering.