The Scottish director Lynne Ramsay doesn’t seek artificial sympathy for her characters, and in “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” any sympathy her characters receive comes only after a hard-fought battle.
The movie starts by introducing us to Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), who is having a pretty good day after landing a job in a travel agency. That’s when a woman walks up to her, sees her smiling and slaps her across the face. Later, in the grocery store, another woman breaks a dozen eggs in her shopping cart. Eva takes these indignities and swallows them, because she knows why her neighbors hate her so much.
Bouncing backward and forward in time, Ramsay and co-writer Rory Kinnear (adapting Lionel Shriver’s novel) take us deep into Eva’s life. In chronological order, she’s a carefree young travel writer in love with Franklin (John C. Reilly), then she’s married and pregnant, then she’s a harried mother trying to raise their son Kevin. And it’s here, in raising Kevin, that Eva sees how much has gone wrong.
Kevin (played by Ezra Miller as a teen, Jasper Newell in his grade-school years and Rocky Duer as a toddler) seems particularly difficult. He cries uncontrollably as a baby, refuses to be potty-trained or learn his letters as a toddler, and engages in antisocial behavior as a teen. And he’s only mean to Eva or to his baby sister Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich), never to Franklin, who smiles and answers Eva’s concerns with a dismissive “boys will be boys”chuckle.
Or at least that’s how Eva remembers it. Eva’s memory may not be too reliable — because, as we learn, it may be colored by the horrific events that follow.
Ramsay and Swinton, in an emotionally devastating performance, precisely capture the anguish of a mother who looks at her child and wonders where she messed up. Every bad experience is magnified, every good moment forgotten or diminished. And, at every turn, the thought of “what could I have done differently?” taunts her because she fears the answer will be “nothing.”
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” provides no happy endings or convenient answers. But it is a heartbreakingly effective movie that’s as hard to forget as it is to watch.
‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’
Tilda Swinton is devastating as a mother thinking back on what went so horribly wrong with her son.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens today.
Rating • R for disturbing violence and behavior, some sexuality and language.
Running time • 112 minutes.