In the opening scene of We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay's film about the aftermath of a mass murder at a high school, people are sensually writhing in what looks like pulpy blood.
What's soon revealed is that the mayhem is merely a tomato throwing festival, an annual event common in some foreign cities that leaves participants coated in red. It's an eerie and compelling image and the perfect preface to this searing movie about atonement, survival and survivor guilt.
The movie's based on Lionel Shriver's novel, written as a series of letters composed by Eva Khatchadourian, a grieving but resilient mother played by Tilda Swinton like a well-tuned, tautly strung Stradivarius. From that stylized opening, the movie flashes forward to Swinton and John C. Reilly as the new parents of a baby boy who, even as a toddler, seems to be uncomfortable in his own skin and in his family.
Eva doesn't take to motherhood immediately, which affects many mothers though they're loathe to admit it. And as her son grows up (he's played by three different actors), his social skills increasingly seem less suited to a little boy than a scorpion . At times, he's shrieking like a banshee; other days he wraps himself in a cocoon of baffling silence. He seems perpetually at odds with his mother, who doesn't give up on trying to cement some kind of bond.
When flash forwards reveal that something horrible results at the hands of the teenage Kevin (Ezra Miller), Eva is forced to answer questions she's been struggling with since he was a baby: what do you do and how do you cope if your child is is perceived as, at first, an intrusion, then a prison warden in short pants, then a problem, and then a monster?
The mixed-up chronology might confuse viewers but there's a hint to what year you're watching by looking at Swinton's hair. Prior to and early in Kevin's life, she dons a short, androgynous cut. After the events that devastate her and her town, it hangs unwashed over her ears, as if she's hoping it serves as a disguise. Ramsay's tone is edgy and intense, yet always consistent; it practically throbs with portent. And Swinton, who got a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress and deserved an Oscar nod, is superb as a woman awash with pain and guilt yet still capable of holding a tiny thread of hope.