“Ratcatcher,” Lynne Ramsay’s affecting 1999 directorial debut, focused on the tribulations of a lonely child surrounded by bad examples. “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” Ramsay’s long-awaited third feature, deals with a similar character from the perspective of a concerned parent. Adapted from Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel, this immersive look at a high-school shooter and his grief-stricken mother avoids sentimentality and constructs a sensationally moving evocation of the ultimate dysfunctional family.
Tilda Swinton delivers a breathtakingly fragile performance as Eva, whose 15-year-old son Kevin (Ezra Miller) sits in jail while she lives in the shadow of his murderous act. But she’s hardly without culpability, having apparently resented her son’s existence since his birth. Nothing is certain in Ramsay’s version of the events. Following her stylistic tendencies in “Ratcatcher” and the delectable quasi-noir “Morvern Callar,” the director masterfully conveys her troubled protagonist’s subjectivity. Early on, Eva dashes to the scene of her son’s crime, standing in a crowd of mortified faces and looking at events that Ramsay chooses to withhold. Instead, the movie launches an elaborate structure that flashes forward and backward, nimbly crafting a timeline of the family’s downhill slope.
The whole narrative essentially functions as a prolonged reaction shot to that one moment, as Eva examines the fragments of her relationship to her son and searches for the semblance of an explanation. With its non-linear design, “Kevin” is the rare experimental work to contain a vast spectrum of emotions.
Much of this has to do with the tightly controlled performances: Swinton, as always, buries herself in the role with a hardened expression that threatens to dissolve into anger at any moment. Miller, now a teen-angst movie regular following his roles in “Afterschool” and “Beware the Gonzo,” finds the right material for a breakout performance. Wearing a constant scowl and spitting epithets at his despondent mother, Kevin develops into a tantalizing enigma for the audience to figure out alongside Eva: At what point did he seal his fate as a sociopath, and what could Eva have done to stop it? His face continually begs the question.
The only weak link in the cast is John C. Reilly, being a little too cheery as Kevin’s oblivious father, but he’s mostly a prop in Eva’s world — and useless in her mission to tame her child. Kevin’s issues are clearly related to his mother’s disdain for him, which Ramsay tracks all the way back to the crib. As she forces a grin while the baby can’t stop crying, Eva looks like she has a little bit of a maniac side to her as well.
As usual for Ramsay, an elaborate audio-visual design establishes the internal rhythm. Slight physical gestures play loudly on the soundtrack, mimicking the constant discomfort of Eva’s shattered world. The images, photographed by Seamus McGarvey, keep up: The first shot finds Eva engaged in La Tomatina, Italy’s traditional tomato fight, where she winds up bathed in red. That alarming color returns to focus throughout, imbuing “Kevin” with shades of an existential horror movie in which the identity of the monster is split between two people.
Unfortunately, Ramsay’s adaptation was completed after the festival premiere of “Beautiful Boy,” another movie about the aftermath of a high school shooting and the impact it has on the shooter’s parents. That one, however, works as a straightforward portrait, while “Kevin” successfully gets under our skin much in the same way it impacts Eva. “You don’t look happy,” she tells Kevin at one point before his violent outburst. “Have I ever?” he shoots back, and gets no reply, suggesting that Eva has conceded his destiny as a problem child with no apparent solution.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Although too dour for a big release, “Kevin” should find a welcome home with a midsize distributor that can capitalize on Swinton’s appeal and compel the movie to further acclaim and good business in limited release.
criticWIRE grade: A