We Need to Talk About Kevin (15)

A great cast is offset by overkill in this horror story, writes Ryan Gilbey.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (15)
dir: Lynne Ramsay

Whatever happened to Kensington Gore? That was the glossy fake blood, popular in films of the 1960s and 1970s, which looked less like the liquid coursing through our veins than something Dulux might have marketed under the name Pigalle Boudoir or Scarlet Harlot. Watching We Need to Talk About Kevin, the film of Lionel Shriver's novel-that-spawned-a-thousand-think-pieces, is like having your head held down in a bucket of the stuff.

The director, Lynne Ramsay, shows only a few drops of blood (an achievement in a story where the pivotal event is a high-school slaughter) but red is everywhere: red paint, red clothes, red toys. One shot shows Eva (Tilda Swinton) sipping wine while a red teddy bear lies face down in despair. The novel permitted her the odd glass of Sauvignon Blanc, but in Ramsay's film there's nothing in the wine rack but claret. Restraint in this context takes the form of using "Greensleeves" rather than "The Lady in Red" as muzak in a supermarket scene.

Having resolved not to show what happens when 15-year-old Kevin (Ezra Miller) begins picking off his schoolmates with a crossbow, Ramsay crams her film instead with proxy horrors and surrogate scares. Red paint is used in neighbourhood revenge attacks against Eva, who is Kevin's mother. Revellers caked in tom­ato pulp at Spain's La Tomatina festival stand in for the victims of the massacre.

A simple slash of lipstick was bold and shocking in a movie as colourless as Black Narcissus. Red as it is used in We Need to Talk About Kevin becomes neutralised through overkill. The effect is to undermine Kevin's supposed malevolence and to throw into doubt the origins of his behaviour. Readers of Shriver's novel were divided between those who saw the character as a monster and those who distrusted his mother's control of the narrative. It's this tension that the picture exploits, rather skilfully. In a world saturated from the start in the colour of danger and carnage, surely Kevin can't be blamed for not developing into choirboy material.

Ramsay's screenplay dispenses not only with the format of the book, which was structured as a series of letters from Eva to her husband, Franklin, but with chronology, too. With that goes any stabilising sense of the present. Scene changes are often prompted by aural rather than visual edits. The violent remonstrations of a prisoner in the institution where Kevin is being held blur into Eva's cries during her son's birth. A soft toy dropped on a table produces an incongruous thud, which belongs to a basketball bouncing on concrete years later.

The film retains Eva's perspective, but makes it fractured and heightened enough to allow scepticism to unbalance most scenes. When she throws the infant Kevin against a wall, he responds with equanimity to the pain of a broken arm. How likely is it that a child could sustain such an injury without crying, unless his eerie composure was an invention of the woman who hurt him? On his return from hospital, the seven-year-old concocts a story to cover up his mother's violence, apparently trapping her in a terrible bargain. Ramsay traps us, too. Either we believe that Eva is delusional, or we accept that Kevin terrorised her from the day he was born - in which case we might be the sort of viewers who think the Omen films should be filed under "Documentary".

The movie is brilliantly cast. Swinton moves as though she has scissor blades rather than bones under the skin. This lends her a kinship not with the doughy John C Reilly, who plays Franklin, but with Miller as the teenage Kevin. Both actors have forks of black hair and angular, androgynous profiles; at least one sequence intercuts their faces to suggest that mother and son are interchangeable.

Ramsay has made a surprisingly playful adaptation, prodding our appetite for the corny or the sensationalist with her knowing use of horror-movie mannerisms, such as the camera creeping up on a little girl singing or the shot of Kevin vanishing suddenly from an empty street. The finest sequence, a nocturnal drive through the suburbs on Hallowe'en with masked trick-or-treaters lurching towards the windscreen, plays with ideas of monstrousness that would not have disgraced Diane Arbus.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 24 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The art of lying