Written as a series of confessional letters from a wife to her husband in the aftermath of their son’s Columbine-like killing spree, Lionel Shriver’s harrowing novel We Need To Talk About Kevin shocks more as a portrait of maternal ambivalence than for its evocation of school massacres. The narrator’s misgivings about being a parent—and the way those misgivings might or might not have affected how her child turned out—violates a cultural taboo; the irony embedded in the title is that she can’t talk about Kevin, because the shame associated with lamenting her own child is too great. In a sense, she can only really be honest about her feelings after the fact, when her family and life are shattered and the entire community detests her anyway.
For her radical adaptation of Shriver’s book, director Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar) dispenses with the epistolary format altogether and attempts to access the mother’s troubled psyche without a breath of narration. And in its best sequences, Ramsay puts her duress in dazzlingly visual terms, collapsing the past and present in an associative rush of red-streaked images and piercingly vivid moments out of time. When the film finally settles, it eases into scenes of a zombiefied Swinton, post-massacre, trying to carry on with her son (Ezra Miller) in jail and her neighbors openly expressing their hostility. It also tracks the mother-and-son relationship from the beginning, as an unresponsive infant and toddler grows into a sullen, violent, frighteningly remote teenager—all while his oblivious father (John C. Reilly) looks away.
Where We Need To Talk About Kevin goes awry is Kevin himself, whose domestic interactions with his mother mainly involve him giving the Stanley Kubrick glower from The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. (For those who saw Miller play another dissociative teen in Afterschool, it’s déjà vu.) It’s important to book and film that Kevin be a monster from the get-go, but seeing that actually realized onscreen feels unnatural and reductive, and robs the film of a more nuanced understanding of how much responsibility the mother bears for her child’s rampage. Still, Ramsay nails the real connection between the two of them: Kevin is only his true self around his mother, and his mother, in turn, shares to some degree his withering assessment of human life. Their relationship, in the end, is characterized by a tragic intimacy.