Director Lynne Ramsay made her name with the highly respected British art-house films Ratcatcher and Movern Callar. Both were stylishly shot, both had tough subject matter, but it was the latter that really put Ramsay on the map. Nine years after her last film, she’s adapted Lionel Shriver’s best-seller.
Eva’s (Tilda Swinton) life is thrown upside down when her teenage son Kevin (Ezra Miller) commits a shocking crime at his high school. As she struggles with getting through each day, avoiding the parents who lost their children, and cleaning the red paint off her house and car, Eva looks back at Kevin’s life and how he became a monster.
Well, Ramsay’s certainly stuck with the tough subject matter and she’s also taken on much higher-profile source material. However, she’s sacrificed none of her stylistic verve. The film is a visual treat, with bold reds and blues a consistent presence. Repeated shots of crushed or spoiled food and the nostalgic soundtrack convey fractured domesticity, and the structure is a mostly perfect mosaic of present-day and flashback.
Kevin may be the one we need to talk about but the film belongs to Swinton, who gives a stunning performance as Eva. Eva is not the perfect mother, far from it. She takes against the (very difficult) Kevin early, and despite occasional efforts to bond, she realises that her son does not like her and that he goes out of his way to upset her. Kevin may be a terrible child as a young boy, and it’s suggested that there was never any other possible outcome, but it’s important that Eva isn’t a patient, saintly mother figure. These scenes in which Eva acts inappropriately contrast excellently with the scenes of her trying to lead a normal life in the face of constant harassment and abuse in the present day. She can’t do anything without being reminded of what her son did, either incidentally or all-too-physically.
Kevin is played by Jasper Newell as a young boy and Miller as a teen, and both nail the unsettling stillness and shocking obnoxiousness that make Kevin such a striking, horrible figure throughout his young life. John C. Reilly is perfectly cast as Eva’s good-natured husband Franklin, who is unable to see the darkness in his son.
The film’s structure means that you’re constantly being thrown off balance. Unsettling scenes are followed by outright upsetting ones. There are occasional moments that don’t quite work, and it’s hard to believe that Franklin is quite so blind to his son’s disturbing behaviour. However, thanks to Ramsay’s superb direction and Swinton’s stunning performance, it’s a highly effective and unnerving piece of work.
Verdict: Perhaps not as snare-drum-tight as it could have been, but it’s a troubling and unsettling film that consistently finds ways to challenge its audience.