We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay, 112 mins (15)

In this adaptation of the best-seller, what turns a woman from a fun-loving globetrotter into an emotional wreck? Maternity...

Lynne Ramsay's We Need To Talk About Kevin begins with a beautiful, ominous image – a gauzy curtain floating in white light.

It sets the note for a film that is elusive, somehow impalpable – which is odd for a story about blood, rage and bodily excretions.

Promoting Kevin in Cannes, its lead Tilda Swinton said that on reading Lionel Shriver's novel, she immediately thought that Ramsay was the one person who could film it. Personally, the director strikes me as the least obvious candidate, and that's what makes the film interesting. Shriver's Kevin – about a woman coping with the terrible crime of her teenage son – is an analytically cool, ironic contemplation of the nature/nurture question and of parents' inability to understand their offspring. Acute as it is, this engrossing but stylistically functional novel feels like journalism in disguise, neatly proffering its subject for further discussion: the consummate upmarket book-club book.

Ramsay, however, thinks not in concepts but in images. She doesn't make intellectual films, but ones that are close to music, taking visuals to the point of abstraction – as in her debut Ratcatcher, about a Glasgow childhood, and the eccentric Oban-to-Ibiza jaunt Morvern Callar.

Shriver fans may be startled to see how much leeway Ramsay – with co-writer Rory Stewart Kinnear and editor Joe Bini – has given herself in telling a story. A flow of flashbacks and reveries, Ramsay's hyper-fragmented film isn't an adaptation of the book in the usual sense, more an impressionistic remix. The story's horrific climax isn't quite omitted but is treated so telegraphically that it seems to be happening backstage. It's as if Ramsay is thinking between the lines of the book, rather than filming those lines themselves.

Swinton plays Eva, once a successful travel writer. We learn this from a bravura sequence at a Spanish tomato festival, as a pulp-slathered Eva crowd-surfs ecstatically over a heaving, scarlet-smeared throng – establishing the film's red leitmotif and telling us indirectly that There Will Be Blood. There's more red when Eva wakes, years later, to find that someone has covered her house with paint. It's the first in a series of indignities that this solitary, emotionally demolished woman has to face. People contemptuously slap her in passing or break her eggs at the supermarket, and the intrepid globe-trotter now has to grovel for a menial job at a cheapskate travel agent's.

What went wrong with Eva's life? Maternity, we discover. Against her inclinations, Eva had a child with husband Franklin (John C Reilly). Little Kevin starts as a baby screaming loud enough to compete with Manhattan roadworks, then becomes a sullen tot (chilling three-year-old Rock Duer) who literally refuses to play ball with Mommy. As he grows older (equally unnerving seven-year-old Jasper Newell), Kevin devises various tricks to confound Mom – turning her office walls into a Jackson Pollock or filling at will the nappy he still wears. The cruel twist is that affable Dad can't see that there's a problem.

Later, Kevin is played by androgynous, faintly Gothic teenager Ezra Miller, whose enigmatic half-smirk suggests dream casting for Young Caligula. With the entry of Miller, and his decidedly creepy beauty, the relationship between mother and son becomes more perverse, implicitly sexual – an evening out resembling a bad date between an anxious older woman and a scarily self-possessed younger man.

The film is strongest in the interplay between Eva and the various Kevins. At other times, Ramsay is more interested in visual possibilities as she digresses, sometimes mesmerisingly, into dream-like images of the everyday: a Halloween parade, a brightly coloured pile of crushed breakfast cereals. Ramsay and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey make full use – sometimes too full use – of the blood-red theme, but the film's masterstroke is to use the bland cleanness of the family home as a frame for dirty, ugly, unmanageable feelings.

Where Kevin goes askew is in its picture of America – particularly at Eva's new workplace where everyone is a goonish hick. True, we're seeing suburbia through the eyes of Eva, an urbane cosmopolitan brought to earth with a crash. But the cartoon grotesquerie feels condescending, and I couldn't buy the soundtrack use of wheezy antique country and western.

The mystery in the film is not so much what made Kevin a monster (if that's what he is), more how much Eva recognises the monster in herself. Swinton's taut nerviness – her Eva looks as if she's seen rougher times than Christ in a Flemish altarpiece – speaks volumes about a woman who's spent her life fleeing the company of lesser mortals. Increasingly we realise that Kevin's mission is to rub her face in her own universal contempt; he's a domestic version of Batman's Joker, a grim satirist holding up a black mirror to his mother's worldview.

Seeing Kevin a first time, one immediately rejoiced in the return of one of British film-making's genuine free spirits. On a second viewing, the flaws are more apparent – this elliptical work doesn't congeal into the more intensely troubling whole that it promises. But a straight take on Shriver would have been a flatter, familiar thing. Frustrating as it is, this is a Lynne Ramsay film to the hilt. It's not the Kevin you know, and it may not be the Kevin you want – but if you see it, you'll certainly need to talk about it.

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney faces belles and bullets in Mexican drama Miss Bala

Film Choice

The BFI London Film Festival continues until Thursday with Rachel Weisz providing swoons of post-war passion in Terence Davies's closing film The Deep Blue Sea. Other highlights include Sokurov's Venice prize-winner Faust, Sean Penn's goofy Goth turn in This Must Be the Place and Rhys Ifans take on the Shakespeare story in Anonymous.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions