Monday, December 26, 2011

We have to talk about Franklin, the hunting teacher

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011, UK/USA, Lynne Ramsay)

Early in We Need to Talk About Kevin we see a helpless Eva (Tilda Swinton) trying to calm her baby down. The baby, Kevin, keeps crying and despite Eva’s best efforts refuses to settle down.
Eva is exhausted and worn out by the time her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) returns home in the evening. Franklin does not understand or believe about Eva’s struggles with Kevin because Franklin only sees a quiet and content baby. Franklin goes on to lovingly cradle the baby and play with the child.
Such a scene is not fiction and takes place in virtually every household where there is one stay at home parent and one working parent. The stay at home parent spends an entire day looking after the baby with no time for playing and is exhausted by the time evening rolls around. So when the working parent returns home in the evening, they usually find a calm baby and freely go about playing with the child. As a result, the working parent is often the fun parent while the stay at home parent is the workhorse looking after every need of the baby. In most cases, the stay at home parent is the mother while the father gets to be the cool parent. In a sense, such roles have existed for centuries dating all the way back to prehistoric times. During the stone ages, cavemen were the hunters who spent all their time looking for prey while the women stayed in the cave taking care of the children and cooking the food. We Need to Talk About Kevin examines the continuation of these roles in modern times and highlights the similarity by depicting archery as Franklin’s main bonding activity with his son. Franklin is passing down the ancient art of hunting to his son so it really should not be a surprize when Kevin uses this training to go hunting for live prey.
Raising a child is a difficult task and that task is much more difficult if only one parent is left to do everything. Franklin is an absent parent and he is not shown to contribute in any raising of Kevin. He tries his best to be Kevin’s friend and leaves all the disciplining to Eva which is clearly a mistake as Eva cannot handle the child on her own. When Eva loses her temper and manages to break young Kevin’s arm, she alienates Kevin who grows up to resent her. Kevin’s hatred extends beyond his mother to his young sister who also gets mistreated by Kevin. Franklin never clues in and fails to ponder over any questionable actions. When Kevin orders a box of padlocks, Franklin believes Kevin’s statement that he intends to sell the locks to make a profit. Franklin even pats his son on the back and likens him to a young “Donald Trump”. However, Kevin’s words seem dubious as he has never exhibited any entrepreneurial ambition but Franklin would be the last person to notice that.
Kevin lives in a family where he is free to do whatever he pleases because neither parent comes in his way. Both Eva and Franklin have a hands off approach towards Kevin for different reasons. Eva cannot muster up the courage to say anything to Kevin because she is tired of getting insulted by him. Also any attempt by Eva to be friendly towards Kevin backfires as Kevin is never in any mood to spend “quality time” with his mother. So Eva keeps her distance and comforts herself with a bottle of wine. On the other hand, Franklin thinks he is Kevin’s buddy and tries to play it cool. But even Franklin is not spared as his friendly behavior leads him getting stabbed in the back. Eva and Franklin are not shown to be bad parents but instead they come off as parents who cannot cope with their child and as a result neglect him. Not all neglected children grow up and turn violent like Kevin but when parents neglect their child, they leave the door open for outside forces to influence and shape their child. The film does not show any of these outside influences and as rightly observed by Srikanth Srinivasan, the film is from the perspective of Eva, which means we never get to see the full picture of how Kevin is influenced. The film’s title and layers of symbolism in each frame highlights the guilt that Eva feels with regards to Kevin’s violent act. The repeated images of blood seen throughout the film clearly indicate that Eva feels responsible for the bloodshed. As a result, Eva sees blood on her house, car, face and hair. The strange looks the neighbours give Eva when she is sanding her house indicate that the neighbours don’t see the blood but only she does.
Interestingly, the film starts off with a scene where the color red represents freedom for Eva. A series of scenes from the Spanish festival of tomatina portray that red once symbolized a time when Eva had no worries or responsibilities.
However, that same red color ends up being a burden for Eva because it represents her guilt for Kevin’s act. Naturally, the images of blood are only wiped clean after Eva has found resolution and stopped blaming herself.

We Need to Talk About Kevin saves itself from heading down a slippery slope by not including any outside influences that helped shape Kevin’s motives. When Eva presses him for an answer about his violent act, Kevin replies "I used to think I knew. Now I'm not so sure." Usually, there is no quick answer that can suffice but instead the answer lies in years of neglect, anger and resentment that comes to a boil in a single moment. The film gives snippets of these resentful moments from Kevin’s childhood into his teenage years but only from Eva’s memories. Even if the film tried to incorporate Franklin into the perspective, it is hard to think any worthwhile memories would be generated from his vantage point. Franklin unknowingly supervised Kevin’s killer training yet Franklin is blood free for all but one scene. More importantly, Franklin fails to be there for Eva. Franklin never believes Eva when she tells him about Kevin’s negative actions nor does he observe his son’s rude behavior towards his mother or sister. As a result, Eva can never approach Franklin to get him to discipline Kevin. There is clearly a problem in Franklin and Eva’s marriage but since we never learn anything about Franklin, we can only assume he is not interested in any responsibility whatsoever. In the end, Eva is left to run the household and is forced to pick up the pieces after all the arrows have been fired. One day, perhaps we can talk about Franklin and what was so important that he completely ignored his family.

Note: the casting of Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller as the younger and older Kevin is certainly a great decision as both reflect each other nicely. On top of that, both nail their role perfectly and the older Kevin oozes hatred and evil when needed.


Sam Juliano said...

Newell and Miller showed up at Manhattan's Angelika Film Center on the night of the film's NYC opening, and both were articulate and fascinating to behold. I guess I like the film a little less than you, Sachin, but I'll admit there were riveting moments and interesting use of metaphors. You do a great job here, and your explanation of the use of red is excellent. At some point I'll watch the film a second time.

Happy New Year to you all during the particularly joyous time!

Sachin said...

Thanks Sam for your comments. It is certainly a fascinating film with plenty of symbolism but there are also plenty of aspects which can be frustrating, especially when the editing and visual style stands out more.

Best wishes to you and your family as well.