For most parents, losing a child is the worst thing they can imagine. There is perhaps something worse, though. We Need to Talk About Kevin opens on Eva (the great Tilda Swinton) living alone in a tiny, badly furnished house and narcotizing herself into unconsciousness with red wine and pills. Director Lynne Ramsay starts to tell Eva's story in fragments, flashing back to her past and zipping back to the present, where Eva is a pariah, with passersby prone to confronting her violently, her house and car defaced by gallons of red paint. Her exile is clearly internalized, too: She greets the world outside her door as a whipped dog might. Thanks to Ramsay's hints and careful reveals, we begin to apprehend that Eva's son is one of those quiet boys who keep to themselves until they one day make national headlines. How one faces being the mother of a mass murderer is a rich topic for the kind of artful, acutely observed cinema Scottish filmmaker Ramsay has become renowned for in her career to date. But that's not quite the film she made.
She does specialize—you have to give her that. Both Ratcatcher, her brilliant 1999 feature debut, and Morvern Callar, her more polarizing 2002 follow-up, focused on somewhat isolated characters who find themselves living with terrible secrets. (Eva's terrible thing isn't secret when we meet her, but her isolation is more profound.) Adapted from Lionel Shriver's 2003 novel by Ramsay and co-writer Rory Stewart Kinnear, We Need to Talk About Kevin is more expansive than Ramsay's previous work, and few filmmakers working today do such elliptical storytelling this well. Travel writer Eva's rich, carefree single life is telegraphed by her abandon amid the scrum and smashed tomatoes of the La Tomatina festival in Spain; the erotic charge of dim glimpses enervates Eva and photographer Franklin (John C. Reilly) meeting and falling in love. These scenes are cut against Eva's barely suppressed panic at running into a victim's mother in the fluorescent glare of a supermarket, or the exhausting obsession with which she scrubs the paint from the front of her house, Lady Macbeth style. But we soon meet Kevin, and a much less subtle film emerges.
Eva and Franklin's son Kevin is, in a phrase, an evil little shit from his first breath. He shrieks in her face constantly as an infant. As a preschooler he refuses potty training, stays mute, fixes his mother with a stony stare, and acts out. He responds with filial affection to Franklin, but for Eva has nothing but contempt. She handles none of this well (at one point, she accidently breaks his arm), but Kevin's thoroughgoing, ridiculous awfulness here kind of excuses all that. By the time he hits puberty (played by Ezra Miller), he has become almost a caricature of malignity, an irredeemable smirking imp with a terrible whim always ready to go right behind his eyes. When Ramsay cuts to a shot of his little sister's new pet guinea pig, it's almost comical how clear it is where all this is going.
Indeed, for every deft choice and skillful sequence Ramsay crafts—the way Eva comes to understand that it's her child who's put the high school on lockdown is devastating—there's an odd or overly obvious choice that jars. The red of blood, of violence, of infamy is there from the beginning—splattered all over Eva's house, splattered all over her in the form of smashed tomatoes—but you could make a drinking game out of the vivid reds that jump out of Ramsay's compositions throughout. Likewise, it doesn't take long to pick up on splatter patterns as a visual motif for Kevin, which is both apropos and a bit too on-the-nose, like so many other things here. Ramsay turns to past collaborator Paul Davies for brilliant sound design and then lays a twangy version of the old hillbilly tune "Muleskinner Blues" over Eva's post-incident search for any lowly job that'll have her. Ramsay's films have all had an instinctual quality, but this time her instincts fail her as often as not.
Ramsay deserves credit for building to a climax beyond the obvious climax, answering a question you barely realize you've been asking in one brutal tableau. Likewise, the film's final scene puts a point on the narrative long after you'd given up hope of seeing one, bringing We Need to Talk About Kevin back around to telling Eva's story after Kevin hijacks it into borderline horror-flick turf around the halfway mark. It's all a little too late, though. Great filmmaking, but not a great film, and one that unsettles for the wrong reasons.