CAN children be born evil or do their parents make them that way?
Scottish director Lynne Ramsay explores the rocky road of parenting and the nature v nurture question in We Need To Talk About Kevin in an imaginative and thought-provoking adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s prize-winning 2003 novel.
It’s a shocking and difficult tale of a mother’s struggle after her teenage son Kevin commits a Columbine-style massacre at his high school.
Ramsay does away with the structure of the original book, in which Kevin’s mother Eva writes to husband Franklin about her sociopathic son’s misdeeds.
Instead, we see the story of Eva (Tilda Swinton), Franklin (John C Reilly) and Kevin (Jasper Newall as a child and Ezra Miller as an adult) unfurl over four distinct time periods.
We see Eva’s heady and carefree days as a travel writer and the time she fell in love with her husband.
We then see the seeds being sown for the tense psychological feud between Eva and Kevin, with one memorable scene showing her parking the pram next to a building site to drown out his screams.
There are glimpses of that awful day when Kevin commits his shocking act of atrocity.
And finally we see Eva’s struggle to cope with being one of the most vilified mothers in America.
Ramsay’s minimal narrative jumps frequently between these four strands - forcing the audience to connect the dots between Kevin’s crime and what came before it.
Red imagery is a major theme in We Need To Talk About Kevin - making for a visually stunning and visceral experience.
From the opening shot of Eva being carried through crowds at a Spanish tomato festival, to splatters of crimson red paint and oozing jam sandwiches - everything points to the impending bloodshed and question of who really has blood on their hands.
Do Kevin’s actions come from nowhere or did his mother make him that way?
Ramsay builds a fantastically dark and intense chemistry between Eva and Kevin, helped along by some real tour de force performances from Swinton and the two actors who portray Kevin as a child and teenager.
Swinton is superb as the brittle and complex Eva - portraying the estranged and frustrated mother with astonishing conviction.
Jasper Newell, who plays Kevin from six to eight, is a revelation. From his haunting eyes to a menacing grimace, he manages to evoke both fear and sympathy in the viewer.
The transition between young and old Kevin is seamless. Snarling and seething, Ezra Miller plays a modern-day version of Batman’s Joker - holding up a mirror to his mother and her actions.
There is one particularly uncomfortable scene when Eva tries to bond with Kevin, taking him out for dinner.
Their strained relationship takes on an implicitly sexual tone as we see the meal play out as a bad date between an anxious older woman and a young man mature beyond his years.
Some may find the combination of powerful imagery and sparse dialogue in We Need To Talk About Kevin too one-dimensional - leaving many questions unanswered.
Contrary to the fim’s title, ‘Kevin’ is never really discussed in any depth and we never truly find out why he committed the acts he did.
To some extent this detracts from the overall impact a tale of this kind should have on the audience.
But nevertheless it is blessed with cracking performances and packed with layers of words and images to talk about long after you’ve left the cinema.
Star rating HHHH