Scottish director Lynne Ramsay directs a never-better Tilda Swinton in this sublime adaptation of Lionel Shriver's bestselling novel about a mother whose unloving son has committed a terrible atrocity. The fall-out from the unspeakable crime leaves her persecuted by her community and pondering how much she is to blame. John C Reilly plays her affable husband while two actors - Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller - chillingly bring Kevin to life. A Cannes hit, this is gritty, heart-wrenching stuff.
John C Reilly
From the moment We Need to talk About Kevin opens - in a terrifying splash of red paint and truncated flashbacks - the story of reluctant mum Eva (Swinton) and the son who seems to loathe her is relentlessly bleak, teeming with anger and desperation.
It is also one of the cleverest book adaptations ever made.
Whereas the novel was told through Eva's letters to her ex-husband, following a Columbine-like tragedy that she strives to understand, director and co-writer Lynne Ramsay builds her film on flashbacks rather than letters - a form that works well as we see Eva trudge wearily amongst neighbours who spit at and punch her. Slowly, as Eva looks back, we begin to see why.
There's a lot reminiscent of Revolutionary Road here. A former travel writer, Eva feels trapped by her pregnancy. As other women parade their swollen bellies proudly around the changing room, she looks in terror at her own. Swinton is terrific, at once fierce and frightened, a confused career woman slowly brought to her knees by a child and life she never wanted.
From his infancy, when Eva stands his pram next to roadworks to drown out the sound of his cholic screams, to his adulthood where her preference for her sweet, affectionate daughter is clear, Kevin is unwanted. Is it any wonder that he hates her, manipulating her even as a toddler by refusing to talk, to potty-train, to show affection. Jasper Newell, who plays the young Kevin, is an amazing find, a cold, calculating little thing who is acutely aware of how much power he holds as a presumed innocent.
The naive cheeriness of Eva's husband (wonderfully, if slightly redundantly rendered by John C Reilly), and the false normalcy of their suburban life, heighten her sense of isolation. Only she and Kevin understand the hell in which they both live.
Ramsay is aggressive in her use of symbolism. An unmistakably blood-like red appears everywhere. Neighbours fling red paint at Eva's clapboard cottage; she scrubs the guilty crimson from her own hands. Some may find it a bit heavy handed, but the style of the film serves an important purpose, lending the almost unbearable subject matter a beautiful, ethereal quality that it makes it just about watchable.
But the true beauty of the film lies in its uncertainty. We are as unsure as Eva whether Kevin is naturally demonic or somehow the result of her unwillingness to bring him into the world. Can she really be blamed for not loving something so unloveable? Or are we just seeing the past through the eyes of a depressed mother?
And, most terrifyingly of all, in the end, is there something about the hatred between Kevin and his mother, that is just as unbreakable as a bond built on love? Perhaps Eva is always afraid because the rage that exists in Kevin is something that she recognises within herself.
Expectant mothers, look away.