Motherhood goes horribly wrong in We Need to Talk About Kevin

Tilda Swinton's strong performance can't save this phony-feeling film

We Need to Talk About Kevin explores a mother-son relationship even more dysfunctional and disastrous than that in Coriolanus. Tilda Swinton plays Eva, a former travel writer whose life grows increasingly worse after the birth of her first child, Kevin. The film hints early on that teenage Kevin committed some kind of unspeakable crime, but director Lynne Ramsay withholds specifics until the very end. We Need to Talk About Kevin cuts between Kevin's sinister childhood and the waking nightmare of Eva's present-day life in a town where everyone treats her worse than a leper or puppy-strangler.

Kevin's flashbacks suggest that motherhood transformed Eva from jet-setting world traveler to domestic drudge full of resentment for her newborn. Even in diapers, Kevin radiates hostility toward Eva. The film implies an endless cycle of maternal exasperation and childish insolence until the teenage Kevin (Ezra Miller) resembles an outright sociopath. He passes for normal around his father (John C. Reilly) and everyone else, although Miller gives such a glowering, sinister performance, you can't believe anyone would buy Kevin's act.

The role of Eva plays to Swinton's strengths of emotional transparency. She indicates the subtlest disappointments and psychological wounds with the slightest change in expression. Ramsay's direction, however, proves abrasive at every turn, from the acting of Eva's hateful neighbors to the jeeringly ironic musical cues such as Buddy Holly's chirpy "Everyday."

We Need to Talk About Kevin unquestionably offers a wrenching portrayal of family and community life gone wrong. As a parent, however, I simply couldn't buy what the film is selling. Either Kevin's a devil-boy worthy of one of the Omen movies, or Eva's perceptions are so out of whack we can't take anything in the film at face value. (And the film offers little evidence for the latter.) No matter how cunning a sociopath Kevin might be, it's nearly impossible to imagine a mother putting up with such menacing behavior, especially when there's a younger sibling in her house. We Need to Talk About Kevin admirably takes on prickly themes of guilt and parenthood, but despite Swinton and Ramsay's artistic strengths, there's ultimately something phony about the film.