An absorbing, haunting film that's part character study and part social commentary, We Need to Talk About Kevin is also another pious European appraisal of American culture. It's directed and adapted by Brits—Lynne Ramsay and Rory Kinnear, respectively—and stars the indomitable Scottish actress Tilda Swinton as a mother living with the aftermath of a horrifying crime committed by her teenage son.
Lionel Shriver, the Gastonia, N.C., native who penned the critically acclaimed source novel, is an American expatriate living in London—indeed, Shriver has written that her book revolves around "a high-school massacre of the sort Americans are rightly ashamed of."
At the heart of the story is an exploration of nature vs. nurture. Kevin is the first-born child of Eva (Swinton) and Franklin (John C. Reilly), and the narrative oscillates between Eva's life before and after the murders perpetrated by Kevin, who is played across 15 years by three actors (Rock Duer, Jasper Newell and, as a teenager, Ezra Miller).
Already grappling with maternal ambivalence, Eva becomes convinced, with good reason, that her son is a budding sociopath harboring both patent and latent malice, particularly toward his mother and little sister Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich). Kevin assumes the aura of a demonic Damien, committing acts both innocuous (ruining walls Eva papered using rare maps; repeatedly pooping in his pants out of spite) and sinister (Celia loses her eye in a household "accident"). When Franklin introduces his son to archery, it's the ironic moment that seals the fate of their family and town.
The far more intriguing portions of Kevin are those depicting Eva's life post-massacre. Indeed, there are moments when a more appropriate title for the film would be We Need to Talk About Moving to Another Town. Already racked by emotional torment, Eva suffers the daily whispers and sidelong glances of strangers. She awakens one morning to find red paint splattering her house and car; later in the day, she's punched without warning by an aggrieved woman while walking down the sidewalk. And when Eva rebuffs the advances of a seemingly genial coworker (Alex Manette), he responds with a vicious verbal assault. Eva is not only treated as a pariah, she's viewed as virtually subhuman. The cruelest act Kevin commits against his mom is leaving her alive.
Ramsay proceeds at a meditative pace, allowing the gloomy undertones to take full root with the audience—this is not a film for the easily anxious ... or expectant mothers. The plaintive atmosphere is underscored to great effect by an eclectic soundtrack heavy on 20th-century Americana, including tunes by Buddy Holly, the Beach Boys and Jimmie Rodgers (rendered by British skiffle king Lonnie Donegan) plus the recurring, mournful melody of "Mother's Last Word to Her Son" by Texas gospel singer Washington Phillips.
Still, Kevin isn't worth talking about without Swinton, who was inexplicably snubbed for an Oscar nomination. With searing minimalism, the wraithlike actress expertly connotes a woman alive only in the physical sense. She channels the conflicting complexities of a mother who both fears and loathes her child yet cannot bring herself, against all logic, to quit trying to understand him or earn his love. The bulk of We Need to Talk About Kevin is art house horror; Swinton confers its humanity.