12.10.11

'We Need To Talk About Kevin': Do Inherently Evil Kids Exist?

The controversial film We Need To Talk About Kevin raises the question: Can children be evil? Marlow Stern watched the movie with child psychiatrist Alan Ravitz. WARNING: Some spoilers.

There have been quite a few controversial films in 2011. Human Centipede 2, banned in Britain, offered one of the more violent, nihilistic entries in the “torture porn” subgenre, while Steve McQueen’s mesmerizing NC-17 rated sex-addiction drama, Shame, featured Magneto engaging in a series of lurid sex acts, including an orgy. We Need To Talk About Kevin, directed by Lynne Ramsay from a novel by Lionel Shriver, is sure to join them as one of the most talked-about films of the year.

Ramsay’s film centers on Eva, played by Tilda Swinton, who struggles to cope with the aftermath of a high school shooting perpetrated by her troubled son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), and whether or not she was responsible. Kevin, it seems, was troubled from birth. He cries incessantly as a baby, resists toilet training, and intentionally undermines his mother’s every attempt at nurturing him. To make matters worse, her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), thinks she’s a poor, emotionally unavailable mother, and sides with Kevin. The film poses many interesting questions: is Eva, a reluctant and resentful mother, to blame? Are children inherently evil?

In order to answer these difficult questions and more, The Daily Beast screened the film with renowned child and adolescent psychiatrist Alan Ravitz (MD, MS) of the Child Mind Institute, who helped analyze the film.

Are there inherently evil children?

You see kids who are unresponsive, and you see kids who are oppositional, but you don’t see kids who are stone-cold evil. Are kids inherently evil? I don’t think so. But it’s complicated, because at some level, organisms fight for resources, and consequently organisms, including human beings, can be aggressive and territorial to get the resources necessary to survival. In that sense, there’s a miniscule bit of this in everybody—you can get pissed off, aggressive, hostile, vindictive—but this kid, from the get-go, it was the only part of his personality that existed. It wasn’t real. From the standpoint of cognitive development, he was way too smart, and way too abstract in his thinking at a very young age. You don’t get Machiavellian in terms of strategy until you’re capable of “formal operational thought,” around 13 or 14. Younger kids can be manipulative, but this kid didn’t want anything but to wreak havoc.

And the child wreaks havoc on his mother, in particular.

Right from the beginning, he hated the mother. I see kids who are worse with their mothers than their fathers, and I see kids who are only bad at home, but usually it has to do with some kind of marital discord.

We Need to Talk About Kevin
Tilda Swinton and Rocky Duer in We Need To Talk About Kevin. (Nicole Rivelli Photography)

The film also seems to sow seeds of doubt as far as the mother’s parenting is concerned. She resents her son from the moment he’s born, and even resists delivering him during pregnancy.

Well, the baby is colicky, but only with the mother. Now, it’s altogether possible that if the mother is really, really uncomfortable with the kid, babies feel the way their mothers are, so if mothers are tense and angry, babies have a difficult time attaching to those parents. But it doesn’t make them evil. It makes them insecure, anxious, and even angry, but this kid’s anger was a very sophisticated kind of vindictiveness that you don’t see. If she was reluctant to give birth to that baby, one explanation would be that she was depressed. She seemed to have an antenatal and then a postpartum depression, and if parents have postpartum depressions, those kids are at somewhat greater risk because it’s more difficult for them to form secure attachments, and from a genetic standpoint, if mom suffers from depression, the kid is certainly at genetic risk for depression. What was so amazing to me was that this kid was so messed up, no one thought to take him to a shrink?

How young is too young to take a kid to a shrink?

I see kids whose parents are concerned about them as young as one-and-a-half to two years of age. You don’t do the kind of psychiatric treatment that you see in the movies where you’re talking and trying to find out why the kid’s angry, but you’d certainly do an assessment. The fact that he was slow to speak is suggestive of some kind of developmental disability. Maybe he has Asperger’s or something on the autism spectrum because he has very superficial relationships, but there was a passion to the kid in his vindictiveness. Autistic kids are just disconnected.

Is there something Oedipal or Freudian going on here? Kevin has a very sadomasochistic relationship with his mother.

That’s an explanation, but I think it’s really stretching that concept, to tell you the truth. It’s more like a Greek tragedy.

The mother seems very independent. She loves to travel, and we’re to assume that she’s a travel writer. All that goes away when she has Kevin, and she becomes domesticated.

There are some people who shouldn’t be parents. You could call her adventurous, but you could also call her narcissistic. She’s very self-centered, and this kid is definitely cramping her style in that regard. Every decision in your life you do a cost-benefit analysis. She has this desire to be an adventurer and desire to have a kid, and she figures she’s not going to make too many compromises as a result of having a kid, but then it turns out the kid is the worst kind of kid she could have had: totally ungratifying. She just lost. She’s resentful of the kid because he’s so bad, and the kid might notice that, but the fact that he gets angry at her and wants to seek revenge moves you into the literary-metaphorical range, as opposed to just the normal psychological range.

Another interesting aspect of the film is the way the mother handles the aftermath of the school shooting. When the film opens, she’s living in this tiny house, harassed by her neighbors—since she decides to stay in the same town, self-medicates, and even tortures herself further by working for a travel agency.

You could think of it as self-flagellation. She’s seeking redemption and feels very, very guilty. People blame parents for the way their children turn out, but the truth is parents play a role, genetics plays a role, environment plays a role, and chance plays a role. It’s by chance that the kid is a good archer, and it’s chance that the father buys him a bow-and-arrow.

But is it “chance” that the father weaponizes the son?

You could say that this represents a manifestation of his resentment against his wife. He’s pissed off at the wife because he thinks she’s a bad mother, so consciously or unconsciously, he’s doing what he can to provoke her. And one thing he’s doing to provoke her is make him more dangerous than he already is. You could make that argument. But in real life, things aren’t this elegant, and I have a reflex tendency to reject these kinds of explanations.

The mother is further alienated because the father continually sides with the son against the mother.

What you see in the movie is the husband/son side together, and the mother/daughter are together. That sort of thing happens in families. People relate to specific people, so what you end up having is a kind of “fit” between two characters and temperaments. The fact that he has a better relationship with his father is partly due to his manipulativeness, but it’s also because Dad gave him something that Mom didn’t give him. Mom looked for all the negative stuff and only saw the negative stuff, and if you only see the negative, you can evoke the negative. Dad had his head in the clouds, but he said, “Gee whiz, you’re a great archer. Let’s take advantage of this!” He feels bad for his son, sees that he doesn’t get any positive reinforcement, and he’s trying to build his kid’s self-esteem.

Early on in the film, as early as one or two years old, Kevin undermines his mother. They play games but he’s intentionally unresponsive. Have you observed that sort of behavior before?

You see oppositionality in kids. I see kids who are really provocative and hostile with their parents—not that young, but by the time they get to be seven or eight. But these kids are very anxious, they’re very sad, and they’re typically out of control. This kid was eerily calm. You could manifest the qualities of oppositional defiance as early as three or four, I guess. We do this treatment at the Child Mind Institute called PCIT—Parent Child Interactive Therapy—and that’s to treat oppositional defiant disorder, which is kids who are reflexively oppositional and defiant. We only do that treatment for kids under age six. But this kid’s affect is tightly controlled. Oppositional defiant kids have temper tantrums. This kid is way too cold-hearted. Plus, if this kid had oppositional defiant disorder, the school would be calling the parents. This kid is sociopathic. This is sociopathy—where you’re evil and you don’t care about other people.

So let’s say a young Kevin crawls into the Child Mind Institute tomorrow. What do you do?

Situations like this are sufficiently rare that we don’t have an evidence base to know what to do. If you’re trying to treat a sociopath, you have to back them into a corner so tightly that there’s absolutely no way for them to escape except to talk to you and open up. Dexter [from the Showtime series] is a sociopath and can’t relate to people, and it’s only when Dexter is backed into a situation of incredibly intimacy that he starts to talk to himself, or people. So you try to build a relationship, but what’s the likelihood that you’re going to be able to do it? I mean, this kid is beyond treatment. Society needs to be protected from him. But it was a beautiful, beautiful film!