'We Need to Talk About Kevin'

Courtesy of Cannes International Film Festival

Tilda Swinton leads a cerebral horror story that keeps the audience at arm's length.

The irony in the title  of Lynne Ramsay's film We Need to Talk About Kevin is that no one ever does. In many ways, in fact, the film is nearly as nonverbal as the newly restored version of Georges Melies' 1902 A Trip to the Moon, shown earlier at the Cannes Film Festival. Kevin is about one character but takes place entirely in the mind and world of another. Seldom have a son and a mother been more unknown to each other than in this drama, which is as perplexing as it is intriguing.

Its Cannes exposure should send Ramsay's movie -- her first since Morvern Callar nearly 10 years ago -- on a distinguished ride along the festival circuit with acquisitions coming in many territories, all of which will be tough sells theatrically. Moviegoers seek out a film like Kevin for the experience of a top-flight director taking complete charge of a fractured, intricate narrative design and a top-flight actress at the peak of her game. With this film, Tilda Swinton establishes herself as the one to beat for best actress honors at 2011 Cannes.

The Kevin in the title is a troubled, angry youth who, you realize as the narrative tracks back and forth in time, has committed a high school murder rampage. He is played by three different youths at varying ages, but the two playing him as a 6-year-old (Jasper Newell) and a teenager (Ezra Miller) definitely have the evil eye. Sinister and brooding, each stares at his mother with dark intent, the mind behind those eyes clicking away with devious plots.

But the movie really isn't about Kevin. It's about Swinton's Eva, the mother who maybe didn't want to have the child in the first place. But that's just a guess -- she never says so.

Eva has moved from her New York suburban home following the tragedy into a humble house that is the frequent target of vandals, even as she is the frequent target of outrage from a community that scorns her for producing such a monster. Kevin is incarcerated in a nearby prison that she occasionally visits as she tries to get back on her feet with a menial job at a travel agency.

Because the movie takes place largely in her tormented mind, it free-associates with images, words and themes going as far back as her romance with Kevin's father, Franklin (John C. Reilly), somewhere in Europe. The movie, in fact, opens at a Spanish festival where a large crowd of young people douse themselves with tomatoes and juice, calling forth one of the basic theme images of the movie: a redder-than-red red that takes in the festival bacchanal, the paint vandals throw on her house, the soup cans she hides behind to avoid irate parents at the supermarket and the blood from Kevin's many victims.

Reading aloud to her son from Robin Hood -- the only time in the film mother and son enjoy each other's company --  the movie tracks Kevin's growing obsession with archery from rubber toys to increasingly powerful bows until the final weapon he uses to hunt classmates.

An enmity exists between son and mother, seemingly from birth, that Ramsay -- who wrote the screenplay with her husband, Rory Stewart Kinnear, from Lionel Shriver's prize-winning novel -- never tries to solve. The film hints that no mother could cope with such a son; indeed, Kevin despises his mother, seems to have no friends and treats his dad and sister Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich) with only feigned affection. This boy likes no one and nothing -- except archery.

The father is clueless about his son's treachery and ignores any attempt at enlightenment by his wife. Of course, the movie's events are memories filtered by guilt, regret and anguish, so they are by no means reliable. The camera sticks with Swinton, letting you know that this is her thinking back, searching for answers. None come.

Although on camera every minute, Swinton gives the impression that this woman would love to disappear. The actress conveys every thought racing through her character's mind. What is she doing in this dreadful suburb with a husband she forgot how to love and a son she cannot reach? The last thing she knew she was at a tomato-throwing festival in Spain.

Ramsay shoots in Cinemascope, so no matter how close she gets to her heroine, you sense the environment as well. Small objects and little details about what Kevin is up to take on a more ominous aspect in widescreen. This is, in a way, a real horror film about everyday things and a disconnected family.

All these narrative tricks and the intense scrutiny on a single character put a viewer at a remove from these events, however. This is a coolly cerebral film with odd music choices -- ranging from the Beach Boys to vintage country -- and a few odd images like a microscopic view of breast cancer cells dividing, apropos of absolutely nothing.

It's a film to think about and debate over but not one to  embrace.

Venue Cannes Film Festival, Competition
Cast Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, Alex Manette
Director Lynne Ramsay
Producers Luc Roeg, Jennifer Fox, Robert Salerno
No rating, 110 minutes