Dir. Lynne Ramsay
(2011, R, 112 min)

We Need to Talk About Kevin is either the story of a woman whose poor mothering destroyed her son, or of a son who destroyed everyone he touched, not least of all his mother. I think it’s clearly the latter. We see in his eyes the vacant space where a child should be, and in her eyes a fear to tread, an inability to reconcile the stranger in front of her with any concept of love or family. When the child grows into a teenager and perpetrates an unthinkable crime – unthinkable, that is, to anyone but her – the community rallies against her because, well, who’s left to blame?

But we shouldn’t mistake Eva (Tilda Swinton) for a great mother, or maybe even a good one; motherhood seems less like something she wanted and more like something that happened to her, an unwelcome detour from her world-traveling lifestyle, and she muddles through it like it’s a map without a key. This is reminiscent of another great film starring Swinton, Stephanie Daley, which also dealt with an expectant mother’s ambivalence. What happens when the feelings that are supposed to accompany the birth of a child – devotion, attachment, joy – never come? What happens when the child instead is something alien and sinister? Could you help but wonder if the problem is within you and not the child?

Early on, director Lynne Ramsay breaks up the film into fragments, transitioning between past and present, dream and reality in an erratic manner I found frustrating. Her goal is clear – to evoke the troubled psyche of her main character – but the effect is more vague than edifying. The film settles down once it starts to consider Eva’s son, Kevin, as a child. Scenes are allowed to play out longer, and the juxtaposition between Kevin’s upbringing and its aftermath creates an agonizing tension that builds to events that are no less devastating for how inevitable they seem. Layer by layer, Ramsay unravels the story until at the end it explodes and we understand Eva and her circumstances with perfect, heartbreaking clarity.

Key to the film’s success is the brilliance of Swinton’s performance. She vividly captures Eva’s terror, isolation, dread, anger, guilt, and regret on her singularly expressive face, in her deep, vast, emotional eyes. She and Ramsay create with intricate detail a complex woman to whom motherhood was an obligation rather than a calling, who fears and resents her son but nevertheless craves his love, who has suffered greatly but feels as though she should suffer more. In one present-day scene, she smiles gratefully after landing a job, only to be confronted and slapped by a woman who recognizes her, in an instant reminding her who she is and what has happened to her; she’s not allowed to be happy. Not ever again.

I was floored by this film and its insight into this mother’s purgatory. In an October interview, Swinton described her acting career as a “major mistake” she’s been trying to rectify. We should all make such errors.