Now that we’ve reached the stage of posthumous psychoanalysis of the Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza, it might be a good time to take a look at two 2011 pictures that dealt with the fall-out of strikingly similar mass murders, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and “Beautiful Boy.”
Both films received mixed-to-favorable reviews but were financial flops — probably because of the depressing subject matter. Violent movies with high body counts are as American as apple pie, but we like to keep our blood-and-gore orgies in the realm of action flick fantasy (ala “Die Hard”).
“We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which got some attention for Tilda Swinton’s very strong performance, is about the mystery of what causes a young person to become homicidally violent.
Filmed in part in Connecticut, the movie has a completely macabre atmosphere as it follows a mother who fears there is something terribly wrong with her son, almost from the time he is born.
The film is well worth watching but it sufffers from a scrambled time structure and an almost abstract approach to character development that doesn’t allow a direct connection with the Swinton character.
“Beautiful Boy,” which I caught up with the other night, is a much more lucid and involving drama about the aftermath of a school shooting spree in which more than 20 students and teachers are killed. Maria Bello and Michael Sheen play the parents, Bill and Kate, who are stunned by what their son Sammy did, and who then try to pull their lives back together as they are tacitly blamed for the college student’s crime.
Directed by Shawn Ku and written by Ku and Michael Armbruster, the film shows us that there are no real answers in the aftermath of this kind of crime. Depression, alienation and anger are so prevalent in teenagers as they head toward adulthood that it is nearly impossible to separate “normal” anti-social behavior from the sort of developing mental illness that can lead to violence.
Bill and Kate’s son Sam is only seen briefly in the opening minutes when he calls home from college the night before his murder spree. Kyle Gallner (below) makes a strong impression in this scene because we see the boy has moved passed communicating with his parents, but they hear the silences as the usual reluctance of a college freshman to express homesickness.
Maria Bello is incredibly moving in the scene in which the police show up on her doorstep — the mother has heard about the college shooting on the news, so she knows instinctively she is about to hear horrible news, but has no idea that her son’s death was a suicide following a murder rampage.
“Beautiful Boy” is an unvarnished treatment of the toughest imaginable material, but Bello and Sheen turn it into an unforgettable story that is all too frequently played out in our culture.