Tilda Swinton is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She’s been sent reeling by the loneliness of a Russian winter, the carnal passions of an Italian chef, a kidnapping conspiracy, two murderous sons, and a class-action lawsuit. In fact, it’s her affinity for such crack-ups that have made her a critical darling and art house star.
An eerie buzz of white noise permeates “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” Lynne Ramsay’s impressionistic, chilling take on Lionel Shriver’s novel of the same name. Fans whir, keyboards click, engines rev. Eva Khatchadourian (Swinton) takes refuge in it, staring blankly into the distance as a jackhammer roars beside her, drowning out her infant son’s incessant screaming. The film’s constant murmur is the perfect aural analogue to Eva’s tenuous grip on maternity, inducing a sort of trance, a state of suspension. “Just because you’re used to something doesn’t mean you like it,” her son Kevin tells her as a child. “You’re used to me.”
Like its eponymous villain, who’s committed a brutal school massacre, “Kevin” is alert to all the bad humors of human behavior, to the deceptions, the cruelties, the violence. Whether he’s a bad seed or the victim of bad parenting is a more touchy question, though Swinton bears Eva’s cross with exceptional nuance. Pale, haggard, face locked in a kind of perpetual stiffness, she emerges into the world only anxiously, undone by a glance in a grocery store, by the knocking of trick-or-treaters at her door. And surely, she blames herself: when a woman in town hits her in the face, yelling, “I hope you rot in hell, you fucking bitch,” Eva brushes off a bystander’s offer of help. “It was my fault,” she says.
What emerges is a broken woman’s fractured experience of time, flitting in and out of memory — the memory of being in love, of the fateful day, of what might have seemed a family idyll, but intimated disaster from the first. While Ramsay and Swinton never shy away from motherhood’s unspoken shortcomings — Eva echoes Virginia Woolf, saying that “everybody needs a room of their own” — the film ultimately suggests that she’s not the neglectful mother of a killer so much as an unheeded Cassandra, whose creeping feeling that something’s wrong with Kevin turns out to be terrifyingly prescient. That she was right all along brings only guilt, and a deadness in the eye, as though she were willing herself to disappear.
As “Michael Clayton” (2007) opens, we find Swinton’s Karen Crowder, lead counsel for a multinational agribusiness that’s knowingly produced a toxic weed killer, in this very process of dissolution. She’s huddled on the commode in a bathroom stall, hair damp with perspiration, sweat stains growing under her armpits. We don’t yet know that she’ll become a perfect emblem of the banality of evil — a tenacious, vulnerable woman who, in over her head, makes a series of terrible choices — but it’s immediately clear that Swinton’s mastered the body language of desperation.
Though the film orbits around the titular law firm “fixer” (George Clooney) who rediscovers his conscience amid the ruins of corporate conspiracy, Swinton, who won an Oscar for the performance, is central to why the movie works so well. We’re talking here about nearly two hours of constant chatter, brilliant monologues and forceful repartees, but she manages to emerge as a relentlessly compelling antagonist because of her almost wordless show of ruthlessness and doubt.
Twice in the film, she rehearses alone for an important speaking engagement, one a puffball interview and the other a message to the corporation’s board. Both montages convey at once the character’s deep anxiety and Swinton’s impeccable craft. Watch as she practices before the mirror in a robe, fresh from the shower, testing shadings of language and facial expression; or in a bra, putting on makeup, working out gestures the way a dancer might choreograph a ballet. Writer/director Tony Gilroy deserves credit for each moment’s tense restraint, but it’s Swinton’s forced smiles and smacked lips that say everything about the character while saying nothing at all. Followed by the smoothness of the delivery in the actual interview, we know that Crowder is motivated largely by fear, an operator with a taste for power whose desire for control eventually leaves her bereft of it.
When that moment arrives, as Clayton confronts her with the scope of her crimes, the lip smacking returns: she’s terrified, and tries graspingly to wring out a deal to save her skin. “You’re so fucked,” he tells her, as the police arrive. “You don’t want the money?” she says lamely, almost aphasic, before crumpling to the ground. In a crackling film that’s all about words, the best moment is this one, seeing what it’s like to be rendered truly speechless. And when the unlikely villain finally has her crack-up, Swinton’s there to capture every gory flicker.