CANNES, France — When two youngish guys in suits with briefcases show up at the front door of Eva, a scraggly-haired, anorexic-thin New York suburbanite played by Tilda Swinton in “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” she has plenty of reasons to be alarmed. People smash eggs in her supermarket cart, assault her in parking lots, splatter red paint across the front of her decrepit rented bungalow. So when it turns out that these guys want to talk to her about the afterlife, Eva laughs with relief. She already knows about that, she tells them. “I’m going straight to hell. Eternal damnation, the whole thing.”
That might be the only real laugh line in Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s masterfully crafted but unrelentingly bleak film, the first of the Palme d’Or competition entries to screen at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The thing is, Eva’s not cracking a joke. She might as well have told those guys she’s already in hell — none of the torments imagined by Dante could exceed what she’s already lived through. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a lot of things: A visual essay on the color red, a triumph of sound design and musical-visual counterpoint, a chronologically disordered, collage-style portrait of a family’s disintegration; a character study of a woman who surrendered her urbanity and her independence for her family and reaps the whirlwind from those seeds of bitterness. It’s also a non-American director’s movie about the soullessness of American suburbia, which bothers me some because it’s so hackneyed but might bother me more if it weren’t so convincingly rendered. But when you break it down to essentials, it’s a monster movie — and I think all discussion of its craft and subtlety (which are considerable) or about how great or how evil it is are constrained by that fact.
The monster isn’t Eva, although she may have some doubts about that. The monster is her lithe and handsome teenage son Kevin (played by Ezra Miller in the present tense, and even more unnervingly by Jasper Newell as an almost affectless younger child), who has, we gather, committed an unspeakable, headline-grabbing crime. We know that from the beginning of the movie, by the way; Ramsay hopscotches compulsively backward and forward through time, frequently alighting on the night when Eva must push her way through a crowd of stricken onlookers and emergency vehicles surrounding her son’s high school. It’s the scale of Kevin’s monstrous act, and its tangled prehistory, that are gradually revealed. (The screenplay, adapted from Lionel Shriver’s acclaimed novel, is by Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear.)
This has already been a big year at Cannes for formally inventive cinema that breaks loose from realism. If Woody Allen’s time-traveling “Midnight in Paris” did that in goofy, lightweight fashion, both “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and Australian writer-director Julia Leigh’s dark, erotic fantasy “Sleeping Beauty” (more on that film later) unleash a potent flow of dreamlike images that seek to drill through your brain and down into the unconscious. As she showed in her earlier films “Morvern Callar” and “Ratcatcher,” Ramsay has an extraordinary gift, and for the first half-hour or so “Kevin” is more like a brilliant, avant-garde sound-and-vision construction than a conventional film, a series of postcards delivered from Eva’s disordered psyche.
Indeed, there are so many great things happening on almost every level of this movie, from Swinton’s haunting, magnetic and tremendously vulnerable performance, which is absolutely free of condescension to the suburban American wife-ness of her character, to the many unsettling individual moments. There’s the way Kevin puts way too much jam on his white-bread sandwich, the way Eva drifts hollow-eyed through the empty aisles of a supermarket; there’s the world’s most depressing holiday party, complete with random lechery and the upbeat bogosity of Wham!’s “Last Christmas”; there’s the oddly powerful disjunction of Buddy Holly singing “Every Day” while Eva drives through a menacing crowd of Halloween revelers. So I’m disappointed to revert to my earlier point and say that fundamentally this is a parenting-gone-wrong horror movie with no real purpose besides scaring the crap out of us with the highly original observation that sometimes bad things happen for no reason. This is the movie Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier would make together, if they started out with a whole bunch of Quaaludes and cough syrup.
Even there I want to argue with myself a little, because arguably the subject of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is precisely our fatal need to seek causality and comprehension in a chaotic universe. Was Kevin just a demon seed from day one, a baby so colicky his mommy took him out into Manhattan traffic, next to a road-construction site, just to drown out the noise? (Sound designer Paul Davies has filled this picture with all sorts of disconcerting audio effects, but that baby — Jesus! Every time they play that scene on the TV monitor in the press room, you can see all the parents’ heads swiveling, faces creased with unhappy recollection.) As a child, he’s a malicious, canny, power-hungry creature, deliberately crapping in his pants at age 8, vandalizing his mother’s room, refusing to answer simple questions politely. “Before you were born, Mommy used to be happy!” Eva tells him in one memorable scene. “Now Mommy wakes up every day and wishes she were in France!”
After all that, of course, Eva can’t shake the sense that her own ambivalence about motherhood poisoned the well. That predates Kevin and his bad attitude; we see her in pregnancy yoga class, where she was the only expecting mom not to flaunt her enormous belly. Now, if half-assed parenting produced psychopathic killers, we’d have a whole lot more of them, but anybody who’s had kids can grasp the underlying terror. Maybe the scariest thing in “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is that Eva understands that she and Kevin have a connection, and that his coldness and viciousness toward her are his special way of showing affection. Only she can see him as he really is, while his father (John C. Reilly) and little sister (Ashley Gerasimovich) are confused onlookers, whom he dupes easily. Whatever made him into what he is, it’s also in her, and his acts are a return gift in kind.