Lynne Ramsay is best known for her melancholic Scottish working-class tone poems ( Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar). But for her first film in a decade – and her most mainstream effort – she has chosen to adapt a shocker of novel by Lionel Shriver.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is about a traumatized mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton), before and after her sociopath son perpetrates a high-school atrocity. The book, written as a series of letters from Eva to her absent husband, was book-club catnip, touching on post-Columbine terrors while offering a liberating acknowledgment of anti-maternal feelings.
The movie, written by Ramsay and Rory Kinnear, is an ambitious miscalculation, artful to a fault, with a jigsaw puzzle of flashbacks with conspicuous colour design in the service of an overwrought psychological horror story.
In an early scene we see Eva revelling in the Tomatina tomato-throwing festival in the Spanish town of Bunol, shot from overhead, her red-splattered body being held aloft while she assumes the Crucifixion pose.
Later, she assumes the martyr role, living in a run-down house near the railway tracks amid angry relatives of her son's victims, who splatter her home with red paint while the soundtrack drones old-time work-gang songs.
Sanguine splashes appear in almost every scene of the film, at times absurdly: When Eva stands frozen in front of stacks of tomato soup, there's an odd moment when it seems Andy Warhol must be behind the school killings.
Haunted and lean post-atrocity, Swinton is compelling but miscast, and she sticks out among her boorish American neighbours like a unicorn that has wandered into the cow yard. When she takes a menial job at a small travel agency, the co-workers are dull-eyed, coarse and hostile. (Eva's skewed perspective in the book is treated here as objective reality.) A pleasant-looking middle-aged woman approaches her smiling, but slaps her and utters obscenities. A male co-worker makes a vile proposition.
In the parking lot outside, a teen in a wheelchair calls out her name and – unexpectedly – treats her with kindness, an event more shocking than the insults. Alone, she eats a frittata made from broken eggs, picking out the shards of shell. Oh please.
In happy pre-baby-Kevin days, we see Eva as a bohemian travel writer who lives with her teddy-bear photographer husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) in a Manhattan loft. The baby arrives angry and manipulative, crying incessantly in his exhausted mother's presence, while instantly quiet when Dad picks him up. As if conspiring against her, Dad insists they move to a monster home in the suburbs, to give their little monster room to grow.
As a glowering toddler (Rocky Duer), Kevin can hold his bowel movements at will to defy his mother. He grows into a destructive brat (Jasper Newell) and, finally, a sneeringly boy-band-handsome teen (the excellent Ezra Miller). Lean, with floppy hair and feminine features, Kevin is his mother's angry double. When Eva has an adorable golden daughter, Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich), Kevin sees the new family member as a pawn in his game.
Can you really be a bad mother to the devil? There's not much room for ambiguity here in the grossly disproportionate punishment for Eva's postpartum blues. Her worst weakness seems to be a fondness for wine (red, of course), unless you count her sin of omission, not to mention a massive plot hole left by the writers and director: Why hasn't she taken her profoundly disturbed child to every mental-health-care professional in New York State? Or possibly to an exorcist?
We Need to Talk About Kevin
- Directed by Lynne Ramsay
- Written by Rory Kinnear and Lynne Ramsay
- Starring Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly and Ezra Miller
- Classification: 14A
- 2.5 stars