Or do we? "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is artfully visualized but, at heart, little more than "The Bad Seed and How!" Director and co-writer Lynne Ramsay's adaptation of the Lionel Shriver novel complicates Shriver's story structure while simplifying Shriver's meanings, along with her provocative, mixed-up explorations of parental guilt.
All the movie has, really, is Tilda Swinton acting up a storm, which is more than enough for some. For me, given what's up with the rest of the picture, it's not quite.
Inspired by the Columbine killings of 1999, the book was built upon letters written by the mother of the title's psychopathic demon seed to the father. On screen the tale of Kevin and what may (or may not) have led to a massacre at his high school comes at us in a tricky array of flashbacks — shape-shifting and expressionistically realized scenes from a fraught marriage between nerve-shredded Eva (Swinton) and cluelessly genial Franklin (John C. Reilly) and their unblinking repository of hate disguised as an average, American, bloodthirsty boy.
As a toddler and preteen, respectively, the little "Omen" kid is played by Rock Duer and Jasper Newell. Ezra Miller takes over as the teenage Kevin, and in his first meaningful close-up he's in prison, being visited by mom. He carefully removes little bits of chewed fingernail from the tip of his brazenly lolling tongue. We're meant to see Kevin and Eva as mirror images, psychically linked beings. From the colicky first few months onward of Kevin's life, it's war between these two.
Blood and its allegorical equivalents flow like Eva's ever-present bottles of Merlot. The film begins with Eva's ecstatic memory (or dream?) of a splattery Spanish tomato festival, back in her Dionysian pre-motherhood era. Blood-red paint can be found everywhere, in nearly every scene. Kevin's oozing, blood-red jelly on white bread; the blood-red gash of lipstick on Swinton's twitchy mouth: America, we're told again and again with the subtlety of a swinging anvil, is two lands — the land of latent violence, and the land of imminent carnage. Kevin's callousness is fed from birth by Eva's fear, loathing, doubts and postpartum circles of hell, and by the culture's antiseptic rot. Or maybe not; maybe evil is just evil.
The film's not dull. Swinton dives in, fearlessly, and her little details of panic and momentary victory against an unbeatable foe are often macabrely funny. Ramsay, her production designer Judy Becker (who loves menacingly underfurnished interiors) and the excellent cinematographer Seamus McGarvey conspire to tell the story through a feverish perspective. But the movie's exhausting in its obviousness, finally, and Kevin is so blatantly one step beyond Damien territory, he should have four 6's on his scalp.
MPAA rating: R (for disturbing violence and behavior, some sexuality and language)
Running time: 1:52