We Need to Talk About Kevin

A troubled kid's endgame leaves Tilda Swinton picking up the pieces

We Need to Talk About Kevin

3 Stars

It's every parent's worst nightmare and it's something Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) knows from the start: There's something wrong with her son. And early in We Need to Talk About Kevin, we know it too, because a teenage Kevin (played at this age by Ezra Miller) went on a shooting spree at his high school, killing several of his classmates.

Eva is already trying to pick up the pieces of her shattered life at the beginning of the movie, distancing herself from the tragedy of her past and barely disguising just how fragile and vulnerable she's become. When a woman calls her a bitch and slaps her face on the street, Eva shrugs it off, like this is something that happens to her every day.

Through flashbacks we learn how she and Franklin (John C. Reilly) hooked up one night and had sex in a seedy hotel room. How nine months later Kevin was born. How they started a family together in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. And how they avoided talking about Kevin, a moody and difficult child who takes malicious pleasure in tormenting his mom from an early age (Jasper Newell plays the younger Kevin).

We also learn how Eva was never much of a mother, reluctant to give birth and growing increasingly frustrated with her constantly crying baby. Is it her fault that Kevin turned out the way he did, as director and co-writer Lynne Ramsay somewhat implies? Then again, the boy was a handful from the start. By the time Kevin finally cracks, it's not so much shocking as inevitable. He's locked up now and his conscience is clear. It's his mom who's living in a prison.

Swinton doesn't say much; she doesn't have to. Her tear-stained eyes and anguished face carry all her emotions. In a career filled with so many terrific, subtle performances, this is clearly one of her best. Eva isn't a particularly likable character – she tells toddler Kevin how much better her life was before him – but she is a sympathetic one. You can understand her frustration. Kevin only comes to life around his dad, especially when they're playing violent video games and Kevin yells at the screen, “Die! Die!”

We Need to Talk About Kevin plods at times as it slowly pieces together the story we already know the ending to. Reilly doesn't have much to do, and the crisscrossing narrative reveals too little at a time. Which may be the point. As we begin to see what a monster Kevin really is, there's no way around it: The kid's a prick. Sometimes they're just born that way. And that's something to talk about.