Eva (Tilda Swinton) is a woman who has learned to walk between the raindrops. She keeps her head down; she ignores the people who stare or point. Something terrible happened in her recent past, something involving her son Kevin (Ezra Miller), and she feels responsible. She's trying like hell to get on with her life, but that's clearly not going to happen; she's too haunted, by whispers, memories, ghosts.
Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin tells Eva's story within a fractured narrative that becomes a dreamlike intermingling of her complicated past with her tortured present. It also does so without telling us more than we need to know about either, yet never seeming to withhold information; in spite of our uncertainty (particularly in the opening scenes) about how one thing relates to the other, Ramsay's such a confident and assured filmmaker that we feel adrift but not lost.
The pieces of her story slowly assemble. Eva and Franklin (John C. Reilly) fell in love. They had a child, little Kevin. Kevin screams and cries all. The. Time. Eva can't make him stop, and the sheer exhaustion of motherhood gives way to frustration as the boy gets older. He is not a nice kid. He's a real little shit, in fact--an emotional terrorist who seems capable of not only manipulation, but evil. "He's just a boy," Franklin assures her. "He's a sweet little boy. That's what boys do."
How much of Kevin's nefariousness is ingrained is up for debate; though he's certainly a rotten kid, Eva and Franklin aren't exactly prize parents either. They allow his tantrums and enable his viciousness, and I'm sorry, you just have to find a way to get your kid out of diapers before he's out of his. The nature vs. nurture debate is a subtle undercurrent which could have been developed a bit more, since it's infinitely more fascinating than the Damien-lite moments.
However, that kind of scary-kid iconography allows Ramsay to build a palpable sense of dread into the picture--both in our anticipation of where its going, and in Eva's utter discomfort, which becomes ours (in both the past and the present). Her visual strategy is so unnerving and the cutting is so razor-sharp that we begin to anticipate and fear the events before they even unfold; Eva's long walk to her open back door near the picture's end is effectively precisely because of all that has come before, and how fully it has prepared us for what we know she's going to find.
Ramsay's style is clean, her compositions spare and almost cold--a strategic choice that isn't new (slick surfaces suppressing sickness) but has seldom been so effectively done. She's deft at setting up and executing keenly observed set pieces, like a forced mother/son mini-golf game and mirthless, utterly depressing office Christmas party; the little details (like the way "Last Christmas" by Wham blares tinnily out of someone's old boom box) are just right.
Is it even worth mentioning, at this point in our lives, how remarkable Tilda Swinton is in a movie? Yes? All right, duly noted. It's a tremendous piece of work, but (as per usual) you never see her working at it, never showboating or pushing; she just disappears into it, and that's that. Miller, a talent who's been worth watching for quite some time now, is quietly terrifying in the title role--his cold, dead eyes and monotone voice are nearly as creepy as those of Jasper Newell, the remarkable child actor who plays his childhood iteration.
Ramsay occasionally lays things on too thick--the business with the red paint is a too obvious metaphor for the never-ending process of trying (and failing) to clean up shed blood, and the picture could've used a bit more about Eva's character outside of motherhood (the information about her book signing is shocking, because we've had no real hint up until then that she does anything other than despair over her son). These are minor concerns. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a tough, frightening, difficult picture, one I can't imagine watching again. It gets into your head, and you want it out.