Eva (Tilda Swinton) puts her ambitions and career aside to give birth to Kevin. The relationship between mother and son is difficult from the very first years. When Kevin is 15, he does something irrational and unforgiveable in the eyes of the entire community. Eva grapples with her own feelings of grief and responsibility. Did she ever love her son? And how much of what Kevin did was her fault?

A face of evil that only a mother could love.

Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin might just be the scariest film about parenting yet made.

The domestic horror film uses graceful metaphor to chilling effect in this series of accumulated reflections from a woman struck numb by the realisation that she has reared a mass murderer.

Producer-star Swinton is a gaunt, empty vessel as Eva, a woman tip-toeing through life in the aftermath of a Columbine-style school tragedy for which her teenage son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), was responsible. With the young tearaway locked up, Eva is the target of hatred and recrimination; she has grown accustomed to having her face slapped by strangers on the street, and having to hide out amongst soup cans when she spots bereaved parents in the supermarket.

Scottish writer/director Ramsay’s long-gestating study of maternal guilt takes the road less travelled, by refusing to cop out and blame the existence of a 'problem child’ on a predisposed demon gene in the manner of say, The Bad Seed, Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen.

Instead, Ramsay and partner Rory Kinnear’s intelligent screenplay isolates key moments of Eva’s pregnancy and the boy’s life, to pose the kinds of questions that you aren’t supposed to expect when you’re expecting, like:

    • What if your child takes an instant dislike to you?
    • What if in time, your little bundle of joy reveals himself to be a combative, spiteful, vindictive little shit?
    • And, how many warning signs are enough to know you’re rearing a sociopath?

The film is adapted from the eponymous book by Lionel Shriver, although at the Cannes press conference following the screening, Ramsay offered that her film is 'inspired by the book more than adapted from it', given several key departures and a complete restructure of the narrative to dispense with the need for voice over.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is bound to give rise to hoary old arguments about Nature versus Nurture, but Ramsay hedges her bets regarding the origins of the boy’s psychosis. One minute, he’s a recalcitrant nappy-clad pre-schooler refusing to potty train as an ongoing act of defiance, the next Eva is silently complicit when he lets her off the hook for whalloping him in the heat of exhaustion and rage.

Swinton’s facial gestures canvas the peaks and troughs of Eva’s life, as she experiences the adventure of travel, the flush of love, the weird displacement of pregnancy, the exhaustion of early motherhood, the shock at her child’s entrenched precociousness, and the lingering decay wrought by a one-two-punch of guilt-ridden grief.

Ramsay’s stylistic touches exacerbate the wounds exposed in the story; the carnage is kept off screen but is recalled frequently in the blood-red of the production design; there’s elegant terror in a slow-motion drive home on Halloween night that blends ghostly visages of neighbourhood children with the apparitions that haunt Eva daily; and the ironic use of old-school country and western tracks adds levity when it's needed most.

According to Swinton, the film was briefly titled Performance, in a nod to the 'happy family’ artifice that Kevin obliterates with the abrupt verbal 'gotchas' he levels at his mother with shocking frequency. Everyone’s performing: Eva risks lockjaw as she smiles in vain to coax her bawling newborn out of a stupor; husband/father Franklin (John C. Reilly) is a sop to Kevin’s manipulation and papers over the cracks in the family fabric, to the detriment of his marriage; and Kevin’s final act of carnage is framed as yet another performance piece in a seeming multi-act sequel to 'Mommie Dearest’. But the one who's really performing is writer/director Ramsay and after a few years in the wilderness, she's in top form.

(Reviewed at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival)

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Watch 'We Need to Talk About Kevin'

Last screened Saturday 3 April, 8:30pm on SBS World Movies / Now streaming at SBS On Demand

UK, 2011
Genre: Drama
Language: English
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly 

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