In Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, Tilda Swinton lives out an urban bohemian’s worst nightmare. Forced to give up her independence (and downtown loft) when a reckless night with schlubby photographer flame Franklin (John C. Reilly) results in accidental pregnancy, free-spirit travel writer Eva becomes an unhappy housewife in suburbia, stuck caring for a kid with whom she’s unable to bond.
Baby Kevin is a terror long before his twos—in one scene, dead-tired Mom wheels the stroller out to a construction site only to find that even droning jackhammers can’t compete with the decibel level of her infant son’s constant shrieking—but Eva isn’t exactly a model parent, either. She makes little effort to hide her resentment over her lost life and coos, “Mommy was happy before Kevin came along” to her toddler’s face. Later, when Kevin (played as a toddler, child, and adolescent by Rock Duer, Jasper Newell, and Ezra Miller, respectively) tries to force Eva to mother him by refusing to potty train, she teaches him violence by example. He’s a sharp study: On the eve of his 16th birthday, Kevin masterminds a mass execution at his high school.
The movie’s present day is roughly two years after the massacre, with Kevin in prison and Eva a drug-addled shut-in. When she manages to get off the couch long enough to get a shit job at a travel agency, she’s slapped in the face in the parking lot by a still-angry townie. Both Eva’s waking hours and her dreams are invaded by visions of what Kevin did and of scenes from his childhood that she fears led him to do it.
The film is essentially constructed as a long, associative montage, flowing back and forward in time at varying speeds. Mostly, there is blood or its symbolic equivalents. At the start of the film, Eva wakes from a dream about the Spanish Tomatina festival (in which she imagines herself as a Christ figure wading through a red-tomato-pulp river of bodies) to find her house and car splashed with red paint. A wall of tomato-soup cans is the backdrop for her panic attack in the grocery store; at home, she downs red wine compulsively. In the film’s second half, Ramsay often interrupts long stretches of flashback to briefly—and unnecessarily—remind us that, post-massacre, Eva is still trying to scrape red stuff off her windows and wash it off her hands.
As much as Eva suffers for Kevin’s crimes, her complicity might go beyond parental responsibility. Eva has such a tough time loving her son (and not, notably, his angelic younger sister) in part because he is so clearly a reflection of her—which Ramsey underlines by repeatedly showing both dunking their faces into water, shot from under the surface. Mother and teenaged son have the same angular, androgynous beauty and asymmetrical haircut; they’re both pathologically narcissistic and obstinate outsiders in an American Dreamville whose kitsch Ramsay presents as grotesque. In the film’s best, strangest scene, Eva essentially asks her teenage son out on a date, as sugary doo-wop plays on the soundtrack, and the boy bites into a sandwich made from slices of white bread—with gooey red jelly in between.
Brilliantly edited by Joe Bini, Kevin is at its best when at its fastest pace, when present and past, memory and hallucination crash together without distinction, mimicking Eva’s point of view at her most damaged. (Swinton’s performance is never subtle by design; the character is a cartoon trapped in a haunted house.) But late in the film, Ramsay slows into a more conventional flashback-and -forward style, fleshing out incidents and ideas we previously saw as flashes, making excessively explicit what she had already suggested, and building to an anticlimactic big “reveal.” By treating Kevin’s evil as a mystery to be solved, Ramsay only succeeds in making what was once allusive banal.