Philip Larkin called childhood a "forgotten boredom". In Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk about Kevin it is an all too well remembered bedlam.
This may be one of the most disquieting films ever made about a parent-and-child relationship, and also one of the most mysterious. For even if we could fathom the intensity of loathing that crackles between a suburban mother and her toxically unpleasant son, it still wouldn't explain the atrocious act of violence that comes to define both of their lives. The anxious parental note of the title seems to be, in this context, a tragic irrelevance.
The film is based on Lionel Shriver's best-selling novel, which comprised a series of letters written by a woman to her estranged husband in the aftermath of a Columbine-style high-school massacre – the killer being their teenaged son. Lynne Ramsay and her co-writer Rory Kinnear have translated the book's epistolary form into a fluid shuffle of past and present, each overlaying and commenting on the other. Tilda Swinton plays Eva, a harrowed and gaunt-looking woman eking out a lonely existence amid neighbours who keep a wary distance. The front of her house has just been vandalised by a shock of red paint, her car likewise. Outside a shopping mall she is suddenly assaulted by an angry woman who calls her a "fucking bitch". Instead of fighting back, she walks meekly on.
How she came to be this hated pariah is the burden of the narrative, which reels back to the early years of marriage and parenthood. We gather that Eva was a reluctant mother, and that she resented the move from city to suburb initiated by her husband Franklin (John C Reilly). Did she also resent the small bundle of woe that was her firstborn, Kevin? If so, she appears to have good cause: having screamed through most of his infancy, the boy then refuses to communicate in anything more than malevolent glares and sullen monosyllables. From the start he seems almost alien in his self-possession, and his manipulative personality contrives to make his mother's life a perfect hell. His refusal to toilet-train is bad enough: but when he sneaks into her study and Jackson-Pollocks the walls with his paintbox it looks like an open declaration of war. "He's a sweet little boy," argues Franklin, blissfully unaware of the torments Eva is living through.
Ramsay, who depicted a childhood so tenderly in her debut feature Ratcatcher (1999), inverts that mood here with a vengeance. But her ravenous eye for detail and painterly sense of composition are undiminished. The sharp edges of the modernist kitchen where much of the action plays out are rhymed with Eva's pointy asymmetrical haircut, a foreshadowing lent emphasis by the sinister dabs of fire-engine red – household appliances, a child's toy, a plastic seat – that intrude in nearly every scene. (It's inevitably reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg's use of red blotches in Don't Look Now). The movie becomes a kind of echo-chamber of coming catastrophe. Eva's choosing the legend of Robin Hood as a bedtime story looks innocent enough – indeed, it's the one time she and Kevin actually get along with one another – until the moment when Franklin gives the boy (now a teenager, played by Ezra Miller) a bow-and-arrow set for his birthday. There could hardly be a more ominous gift.
Shriver's novel planted a seed of ambivalence as to where the blame lies in this unfolding calamity. Has Eva communicated the rage and disaffection she feels about motherhood to her son? Perhaps – but would those feelings, repressed as they are, really turn him into a psychopath? Ramsay's adaptation does not suggest they would. Despite a violent episode that traumatises Eva with guilt and traps her in a conspiracy of silence with Kevin, the film ensures our sympathy is almost entirely with the mother, who has endured such abuse from her son that one feels she would be quite justified in surrendering him to social services.
Tilda Swinton, a twitchy duet of anguish and acceptance playing over her face, backs up this conception of a mother pitted against a monster. In the aftermath there is only pity for her as she forlornly clears up the mess. Watch out for the superbly bleak moment when she answers the door to a couple of Jehovah's Witnesses; they ask her where she sees herself in the afterlife, to which she replies, matter-of-factly, "I'm going to Hell".
It's worth pointing out that Ramsay's film is a bold one in terms of current sensibilities. Every week I see movies in which characters, however stupid or dislikeable, get a free pass by showing what special parents they are: this is because Hollywood has elevated children to the status of gods who must be appeased. The ability to bond with your kid is now shorthand for, "I am, after all, a wonderful human being". We Need to Talk about Kevin would be remarkable just in terms of its kicking against this phony piety. It argues, amazingly, that the admirable mother isn't necessarily the one who makes everything right by acceding to her offspring's needs and wishes. It might also be the one who tries to make the best of a nightmarish job; the one who, in the face of social ostracism, does the prison visits, carries the can, and endures without hope of atonement. But it's a film remarkable for its artistry, too. Lynne Ramsay, abetted by her great cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, has turned this warped tale of dysfunction into something very gripping. It is, essentially, a horror movie, but a horror movie whose principal component isn't fear but pathos.