The latest indie to center on a youth-committed atrocity, Lynne Ramsay's "We Need to Talk About Kevin" aspires to deliver serious domestic tragedy, but equally serves up evil-child horror hokum as its protagonist – the mother of a teenage mass killer – scours her memory for clues to what made her boy go so very bad.
A captivating central performance enables the film to achieve the higher status.
Like Ramsay's similarly atmospheric "Ratcatcher" and "Morvern Callar," the film features characters dealing with trauma, while her setting has moved from Scotland to New England in this adaptation (cowritten with Rory Stewart Kinnear) of Lionel Shriver's bestseller.
The filmmakers have streamlined the book and tell the story via a collage of memories. At the center of these is a high-school crime scene where police and horrified townsfolk are gathered.
Eva (Tilda Swinton), is a former travel writer turned pariah in her suburb, where hateful locals, blaming her for her son's crime, regularly assault her house with paint.
Shell-shocked and guilt-plagued, she combs her brain in hopes of remembering something that will reveal the big “why.” The resulting flashbacks add up to a full picture of her troubled 15-year relationship with son Kevin (Ezra Miller).
We meet the pregnant Eva, who hardly radiates that expectancy glow, and the postpartum Eva, who can't quite bond with her screaming baby. Toddler Kevin is a little demon who refuses to speak or be potty trained. Older Kevin defaces his mother's rare maps. Teenage Kevin is scary.
Also in the picture are Kevin's clueless dad, Franklin (John C. Reilly), and a sweet little sister. Naturally, we worry.
The presentation of Kevin as a one-dimensional bad seed nearly sinks the film, which sometimes suggests an arty version of "The Omen."
But Ramsay is a skilled filmmaker with a bent for visual storytelling and for immersing viewers in predicaments. She compensates for an overall lack of depth by reaping effective horror intrigue from sensory elements such as the ominous sound of a sprinkler. She efficiently reveals a final shocker that those unfamiliar with the novel won’t likely see coming.
Most notably, the film has Swinton aboard, and she provides crucial grip and gravity with her raw, multifaceted portrait of the devastated, self-punishing Eva.
Filling in the blanks in the screenplay, Swinton conveys with as little as her character's sunken eyes a wealth of ingredients – guilt, resentment, selfishness, anguish, essential decency – and reveals insight into the mother-son warfare that drives the story.
Reilly, meanwhile, isn't the primary focus, but his affability proves both winning in a film in need of lightness and fittingly appalling as his character continues to view his horrid child as a "sweet little boy."
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Starring Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller
Written by Lynne Ramsay, Rory Stewart Kinnear
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Running time 1 hour, 52 minutes