We Need to Talk About Kevin is a horror movie for parents. Strip away the showy flashbacks, and it's We Need to Talk About Damien. Because the only simple, satisfying way to explain the monster at the heart of this nightmare is that "he's the spawn of the devil."
Except he isn't. Co-writer/director Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar was hers), working from a novel by Lionel Shriver, takes us into the confused, overwhelmed mind of a mother (Tilda Swinton) whose son has done something horrific. As Eva staggers through every awful day after that, everything in her life reminds her of the many signs that something was wrong with that boy pretty much from birth. And how neither she nor anyone else could figure out a way to prevent a disaster.
Eva is ostracized in her town, slapped by strangers in the street, forever trying to get rid of red paint spattered over her vandalized house and car. Her memories let her escape — she's back in her young, free-wheeling, traveling days, the romance that led to her marriage to Franklin (John C. Reilly).
But quickly, another memory drowns that out. There's Kevin, the baby who cried so incessantly that Eva would pause next to a jackhammer just for the relief of not hearing his screams. In Daddy's arms, he was angelic. But mom saw the real Kevin — a smart child who refused to talk, a boy whose studied cruelty was perfected before his first day of school.
And Eva frets. Was it her fault? Did he sense her regret at the life she gave up? Did her distance from him make him this way?
Ramsay's technique turns a straightforward Columbine-like tale into a visual collage of effect without a singled-out cause, a jumble of regret and guilt, signs seen and not properly dealt with, a weak parent who empowers a plainly disturbed child.
But We Need to Talk About Kevin works on you. Maybe we think Eva's right about her responsibility when she hisses at her kid, "Mommy was happy until the day little Kevin came along — you know that?" Then we see the boy's cunning, his manipulations. Mommy's right to be miserable.
We watch the escalating outrages, and we wait for an animal to be abused. Because we remember that warning sign from psychology class.
Swinton is great at sending the mixed signals Eva must deliver. She suggests passion, frustration and wariness. Her scenes in the present give Eva the timidity of a whipped dog, and she wins our understanding, if not our sympathy.
Among the actors playing Kevin, Jasper Newell (younger Kevin) and Ezra Miller (teen Kevin) play the kid as if they're auditioning for The Omen. Ramsay's camera doesn't suggest that this is just how Eva sees him — unconscionably cruel. This is the movie's subjective reality: Kevin is a bad seed.
But We Need To Talk About Kevin still makes fascinating fodder for discussion for people who have outgrown horror movies. It works at both the "spare the rod, spoil the child" and "this kid needs help" ends of the spectrum. If you're old enough to be a parent, you're old enough to be chilled to the marrow by this depiction of dysfunction, to worry all the way home about the signs you might be missing in your child's development.