It’s nine years since we last had a film from Lynne Ramsay – the disturbing, enigmatic Morvern Callar – but Kevin almost justifies the wait. Adapted from Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel, it’s the kind of film that’s impossible to shrug from your mind. it stays embedded like a sliver of ice, causing you to shudder again days, even weeks, after seeing it. The film’s narrative line skitters back and forth across multiple time zones, but it’s very soon evident that Kevin, the sullenly detached teenage son of Eva (Tilda Swinton) has done something monstrous, though only near the end of the movie do we learn exactly what it is.
We see Eva at various stages of her life: post-catastrophe, a pariah in her small New England town; in her carefree, pre-Kevin relationship with Franklin (John C. Reilly); and between these two points, desperately striving to raise a child whose attitude to her, and to everything around him, seems fixed from earliest infancy in unrelenting hostility.
The story pivots around an act of horrendous violence, but Ramsay keeps it, and other instances of chilling malevolence, cannily offscreen, leaving our imaginations to run riot. instead, oblique imagery drops disquieting hints – from splashes of blood red from the joyous mess of a tomato festival in Latin America to the scarlet paint daubed over Eva’s house by her neighbours, or the borderline-unwatchable scene at the dinner table when Kevin, having done something unspeakable to his little sister, sneeringly toys with a peeled lychee.
As the young sociopath, Ezra Miller (Afterschool) gives a scarily convincing performance, his default expression of bored contempt occasionally morphing into a lop-sided grin. Reilly, meanwhile, makes what he can of a thankless role as his father Franklin, breezily in denial of what’s breeding in his household. But the film belongs to Tilda Swinton, inhabiting the role of Eva like someone with her skin flayed off and every nerve ending left exposed and screaming.
Hiding from a vengeful neighbour she’s glimpsed in the supermarket, she cowers behind a stack of tomato-soup cans (that colour again) as if facing a firing squad. Faithful in tone and structure to Shriver’s novel, We Need To Talk about Kevin shows Ramsay extending her range with impressive assurance. But if you were thinking of starting a family, be warned: this film has the power to put you off the idea for life.
Like The Omen without the supernatural guff, Kevin plays on all our worst fears about parenthood. A triumph for ramsay and swinton, but it’s a lacerating experience to watch.