After a nine-year sabbatical from feature filmmaking, Scottish helmer Lynne Ramsay is back with a vengeance with “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” an exquisitely realized adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s bestselling novel. In a rigorously subtle perf as a woman coping with the horrific damage wrought by her psychopathic son, Tilda Swinton anchors the dialogue-light film with an expressiveness that matches her star turn in “I Am Love.” Craft contributions, especially from lenser Seamus McGarvey and editor Joe Bini, round out an immaculate package that will rep catnip for crix and get auds talking, but may be too bleak for the mainstream.
On paper, Shriver’s distinctively voiced, Stateside-set first-person narrative might have seemed like a mismatch for Ramsay’s visually stylized, European-arthouse sensibility. But as she proved with her 2002 sophomore effort, “Morvern Callar,” Ramsay has no qualms about shearing great chunks of exposition from the texts she works with to get to the heart of the story. Here, as in her previous work, especially her 1999 feature debut, “Ratcatcher,” trained photographer Ramsay lets pure film technique do the heavy lifting in order to convey the desolate emotional climate that makes the central tragedy happen. To echo a key line Kevin speaks at one point, the look and tone of the film isn’t something that has to be understood in context; it is the context.
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Pic unspools through a fluid system of flashbacks that require auds to pay close attention to the length of Swinton’s hair to know what’s happening when. Told chronologically, the story relates how travel-writer-turned-publisher Eva Khatchadourian (Swinton) and her photographer husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) awkwardly swap a boho hipster lifestyle in Gotham for upmarket suburbia to make a home for their son, Kevin (played as a toddler by Rocky Duer, as a 6- to 8-year-old by Jasper Newell, and finally, chillingly as a teen by Ezra Miller), and later his sister, Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich).
Although Eva and Franklin intentionally conceive Kevin out of love for each other, motherhood doesn’t come easily to this adventurous, fiercely independent, some might say selfish woman, especially when faced with an angry, colicky baby. At one point, she tells her toddler son while he’s angrily splattering the walls with baby food that, quite frankly, she’d rather be in Paris than sitting with him at that moment, an honest reaction many mothers feel but don’t usually dare articulate. The scene and others like it neatly establish the story’s unanswerable core conundrum: Is Kevin just a bad seed, or did Eva’s strained, unhappy first attempt at parenting turn him into a monster?
As in the book, it’s revealed fairly early on that at some point Kevin did something horrible and deadly at his high school that created a small avenging army of grieving parents, whom a now-alone Eva must constantly dodge and withstand abuse from in the film’s present tense. The finer details are meted out in small, cruel shocks (gore is minimal, but the telling details are no less disturbing). And just like the book, the pic saves its cruelest revelation for last, in a reveal even the most genre-trained auds might not see coming.
Ramsay and splicer Bini (best known for his work with Werner Herzog) devise some innovative edits, like one ironic match-on-action that juxtaposes a pregnant Eva, walking down a hallway surrounded by little girls in tutus, with a walk of shame down a prison corridor years later. But the quick fluttering between time periods, especially in the pic’s first half, may prove a bit too brittle and mannered for some viewers.
That said, when things settle down into longer, deeper breaths in the second half and the tragedy inexorably approaches, the technique pays off with tiny, close-up details, coming into their own as symbols or at least leitmotifs, some of which resonate with moments in Ramsay’s earlier work (like a curtain seen at the beginning that recalls “Ratcatcher”). Sound design by Paul Davies is similarly playful and foreboding; the whoosh of sprinklers has never been more menacingly deployed than it is here.
Present in every scene so that there’s no doubt that her character’s consciousness is filtering what’s seen, Swinton delivers a concrete-hard central perf that’s up there with her best work. Sporting dark hair and brown contact lenses to suggest Eva’s Armenian heritage, her naturally ghostly pallor effectively sets her apart from the more luridly colored townsfolk she settles uncomfortably among. Playing it straight for a change, Reilly has warmth but perhaps not as well developed as a character. That couldn’t be said of Kevin, who’s perfectly rendered by the three cannily cast thesps who play him, from stern-faced tot Duer to chilling Newell and finally the elfin-featured yet disarmingly deep-voiced Miller.
Soundtrack choices, particularly Lonnie Donegan tunes and golden oldie pop like the Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” work in unsettling counterpoint to the visuals, enhancing the sense of foreboding so vital throughout. The fact that the setting is worlds away from Ramsay’s usual working-class Scottish milieu somehow works in the pic’s favor, so that the slightly exaggerated Americana feel of the locations mirrors Eva’s estrangement from her community. Widescreen lensing by McGarvey is aces, as usual.