We Need to Talk About Kevin

At the center of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a premise drawn from a parent’s nightmare: what if your child were a cruel, remorseless monster? It’s the stuff of horror movies, and this qualifies as one — though not in the usual way that “evil kid” movies do. Kevin isn’t possessed by the devil or anything like that. There’s no explanation for his behavior, no discernible cause. From the moment he’s born, he’s simply … bad.

Cases of inexplicable, incurable evil are rare in real life. There’s usually something biological, environmental, or psychological that can be pinpointed as the cause, and there’s usually something that can be done about it. Deviating from that reality is what makes this a horror film, and a dark one at that. Kevin’s mother can’t outsmart him, can’t make him see his errors, can’t reason with him. There isn’t a puzzle she can solve that will give her the key to defeating him. There is no solution.

Yep, it’s a nightmare, and director Lynne Ramsay emphasizes that by giving the story a surreal, dreamlike spin. The novel it’s based on, by Lionel Shriver, is in the form of a series of letters written by Eva, Kevin’s mother. Ramsay, adapting the screenplay with co-writer Rory Kinnear, still tells the story from Eva’s point of view, but she makes it even more subjective by presenting it as snippets of Eva’s memory. In the present, Eva (played by Tilda Swinton) is haggard, broken, and heavily medicated. Her day-to-day life is a fog. She flits — and we flit with her — back and forth between past and present, moments from her current reality blending seamlessly with similar ones from before. With its trancelike tone and echoey sound design that grows progressively more hollow, the entire movie feels like it could be coming from inside Eva’s fevered mind.

What we know from the outset is that Eva lives alone in a dumpy house, has trouble finding a job, and is a pariah in her community. Kevin (Ezra Miller) is incarcerated. Eva flashes back to when she traveled the world, to when she met Franklin (John C. Reilly), an affable but unserious fellow, and settled into marriage and parenthood with him. Kevin is difficult from the beginning, screaming constantly as an infant, remaining mute as a toddler, refusing to engage with his mother on any level. (He’s reasonably cooperative with Franklin, which only makes Eva crazier.) As a little boy (played by Jasper Newell), when he should be the apple of his mother’s eye, Kevin is refusing to be toilet-trained just to spite her. He’s obstinate, willful, and destructive.

As he grows into adolescence, Kevin becomes more devious and subversive, his alarmingly adult capacity for malevolence belied by his clothes, which are too small for his body and make him look like a little boy. Ezra Miller, who developed his talent for playing smart, calculating teens in little-seen indie films like “Afterschool,” “City Island,” and “Beware the Gonzo,” emerges here as an unsettling force. Even when Kevin’s deeds seem exaggeratedly nefarious, he comes across not as a campy or one-dimensional “bad seed” but as a frighteningly believable picture of a kid who cannot be reformed.

Even better is Tilda Swinton, who’s onscreen for most of the film and plays Eva at several different stages of her life, and always conveys the mixture of complicated emotions that’s right for the moment. She’s exhausted and beleaguered now, at various other times frustrated, resigned, or guilt-stricken, occasionally even happy and hopeful. Differences in hair and makeup make it easy to tell past Eva from present Eva, but Swinton’s performance would have created a distinction anyway. The character is more haunted and shell-shocked now than she was before, and you can see it in Swinton’s face.

More questions lurk around the movie’s fringes. Is a mother obligated to love her child even when that child is unlovable? Eva can be icy and judgmental; did Kevin inherit the worst of her traits? Does that make his actions her fault? How responsible is any parent for a child’s behavior? Where’s the line between “we did everything we could to raise him right” and “we could have done more”? That there are no clear-cut answers makes the film all the more disquieting, especially for any soon-to-be parents in the audience.

A- (1 hr., 52 min.; R, some sexuality and partial nudity, some violent images, profanity.)