Eva (Swinton), the mother of a teenager (Miller) who careers off the rails, struggles to cope with the aftermath of his devastating actions, reflecting on the boy’s childhood and the breakdown of her relationship with both him and her absent husband (Reilly).
When Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin came out in 2003, it was an instant hit. A bestseller with intellectual cred, sitting as comfortably with Richard and Judy as Radio 4, it was swiftly a book club favourite — a candid, controversial examination of what might make a child ‘go bad’, both thought-provoking and thrilling.
It’s material perfect for an equally meaty film. However, one hitch: its structure, a series of letters written from mother to estranged husband analysing why things went wrong, did not lend itself to screen adaptation. But in the spirit of earlier ‘unfilmable’ novels (cf: Trainspotting, American Psycho), writer-director Lynne Ramsay (sharing scribe duties with husband Rory Kinnear) translates Shriver’s literary smarts into something more cinematic, the novelist’s linguistic precision mirrored by Ramsay’s meticulous cuts, frames and perfect pacing.
Replacing letters with flashbacks, a truly terrifying tale unfolds, though one that takes place in a familiar world of Cheerios, Christmas presents round the tree and family dinners at the local diner. ‘Now’ is a washed-out, wan world, as drained as Tilda Swinton’s Eva; ‘then’ suffused in hazy red, with blurred edges, implicit of the horror but also bewilderment to come. It’s a stunningly beautiful film (credit to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey) filled with ugly moments, questions, twists and turns.
This is Tilda Swinton’s film, Eva its head and heart, a complex central figure by turns mother and monster, woman and witch, beleaguered heroine and, to those damaged neighbours who still live beside her, somehow complicit villain. And then there is Kevin himself, our titular antihero but almost a supporting character, lurking as an ever-present torment to his hated parent. Played by the mesmerising Ezra Miller, he’s a compelling character — gorgeous but repellent, an adolescent angel with the cold shrewdness of Damien Thorn. This dark side is, however, visible only to his mother, her husband (John C. Reilly) increasingly frustrated by her apparent struggle to love their son. Swinton and Miller play this complex, layered relationship to perfection, and it’s their strange, unsettling chemistry — eventually to turn cataclysmic — that holds the film in perfect stasis between domestic drama and pure horror.
Ramsay (Morvern Callar, Ratcatcher) has never shirked from the seamier side of existence, but Kevin — deservedly nominated for this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes — takes this to a new, even more troubling level, as mother and son engage in a macabre dance of mutual comprehension and incomprehension that frightens and fascinates until the end.
A triumph for Ramsay — though no easy watch — anchored by terrific performances. Guaranteed to haunt you for days, and possibly prompt a rethink on your position on parenthood.