It begins with tomato juice, progresses through red paint and strawberry jam, and arrives finally at blood. Somewhere along the way, these four substances merge into one, and the mystery of Lynne Ramsay's comeback film We Need to Talk About Kevin is where one ends and the next begins: how did Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) go from a life of Spanish holidays and giddy hedonism among strangers to getting punched in the face on the street by a vicious, spitting old dear? How did she end up downshifting from a vast modernist castle to a clapboard hut? And how did this once-lauded author end up a mute, marked woman?
Those who've read Lionel Shriver's bestselling novel will already have some clue; everyone else is playing catch-up. Yet even Shriver's readers may be surprised by Ramsay's take on the material. This isn't the book as they know it - rather fragments of same, a series of visual rhymes it sets, to an idiosyncratic soundtrack, in the Cubist, slice-and-dice patterns of Gus van Sant's Elephant, albeit without that project's fey determinism. Ramsay and her co-writer Rory Stewart Kinnear have preserved the outline of Shriver's demon-seed narrative - Eva's fraught relationship with her son - but the film forms a conscious move away from words towards sound and image; one surprise, given the title, is how little dialogue there is, but then - given the stark facts the film comes to present us with - perhaps there's nothing anybody can say.
All you need to know about the unhappy central relationship can be gleaned from the look on Swinton's face, willing herself to appear compassionate, as Eva picks up her wailing infant son and wheels his pram within earshot of a pneumatic drill just to drown out the noise. You can see from her pandering husband Franklyn (John C. Reilly)'s way of picking up the boy and airplaning him around the room that a schism in this marriage was always going to be likely; that the child, intended to bring the pair of them together, was surely only ever going to tear them apart. And you intuit from the smirk on young Kevin's face as he has his diaper changed, knowing full well he's going to fill the new one just to spite mom, where the kid's coming from.
The book, an epistolary outpouring, flowed; the film is jagged, angular, divisive. If you do know what's coming, those scenes in which the parents read the boy Robin Hood tales and buy him his first archery set will jab at you with an extra force; we twig this is a boy in training, and not in the happy-sunny way familiar from triumph-over-adversity movies. Yet even if you don't, you may find yourself chilled by the sudden flashforward in which Eva visits the teenage Kevin (Ezra Miller) in prison. Not a word passes between them; instead, the boy noisily gnaws off his fingernails and presents them on the table before his mother, like a cat dragging a dead bird in from the garden as a show for his owners - the gesture's meaning either "here's a present for you", or "don't fuck with me, bitch". The image of the severed fingernails will be rhymed, later on, when Eva chooses to whip up an omelette with broken eggs, and has to remove fragments of shell from between her teeth. This relationship is no longer - never was - maternal, or filial: it's pure sado-masochism.
Given the nature of the material, you might wonder why the book has been the success it has, particularly among mothers and aspirant mothers: could it be read as consoling, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God fantasy, a perversely thrilling what-if? (What if your two weeks of post-partum depression escalated into the Hundred Years' War?) We should, however, be thankful it fell to such a bold filmmaker to bring it to the screen, and that Ramsay should have gone to the States to film it, as though to counter those incessant waves of family-values platitudes that have travelled in the opposite direction over the years. (A new dream double-bill of mine: Kevin and I Don't Know How She Does It.)
There is a sense in which Kevin is taking a fight about the kinds of themes the cinema might represent, and how it might represent them, to the Americas, and one hopes it'll find an audience over there accordingly, although I fear those viewers who want a conventional adaptation of the bestsellers - who want every word and sentence and paragraph nailed down rather than left to float, who want a regurgitation allowing them to see what they've already read and understood - will be fleeing for the exit (and, quite possibly, the safety of The Help, every last, literal hour of it) long before the first reel change.
There were points where even I wondered whether this Kevin wasn't too much, where the comedy in the black comedy as conceived begins to outweigh the blackness, the horror of it all: an over-egged Halloween phantasmagoria, an episode with a hamster and a waste-disposal unit that results only in the death of another critter and the superfluous suggestion that Kevin is an equal opportunity sadist. Perhaps in response to the way The Lovely Bones was swiped out from underneath her, Ramsay's fingers are all over this project, in ways both good and bad. You hear her, as the only director whose paedophobia might give Lars von Trier a run for his money, at the casting call for young Kevins, screaming "No, more Satanic, more!", and you spot her punching up the ironies of the final act (a banner proclaiming "Expect Great Things" in a school hallway) so that precisely nobody in the States can miss them.
The film is brilliantly subtle in some ways, wholly unsubtle - blatant, even - in others, and I wondered if a director who'd got to make more than just the two films in the past decade would have been better placed to restrain themselves at key moments: having a brace of lawn sprinklers spurt forth over the final grim revelation is Busby Berkeley showmanship - ta-dah! - where Kevin's own idea of infamy is closer to the tawdry imaginings of Charlie Manson. Similarly, Ramsay's casting is interesting without being entirely watertight. The presence of Reilly underlines the shift towards a more comic-satiric perspective on these events; Ramsay leaves Swinton her usual compelling stillness, but the actress's poise has been removed, like the red from her hair, the better to highlight everything thrown her way.
Every time the film deposits Eva on a comfortable surface, a sure footing, the script slashes through it. "You can be rather harsh sometimes," Kevin sneers at his mother, as they promenade through a funfair. "You're one to talk," she snaps back. "I know; where do you think I got it?," comes the topper. (The film may be less sympathetic to Eva than the book, where she got to speak for herself.) I was far from sold on Miller, edgy and intriguing in 2009's Afterschool, yet here no more than a mocking, malicious, one-dimensional psycho, the Curzon Mayfair equivalent of Alan Rickman in Die Hard. The magnetism in Miller's sneer, which apparently worked wonders on Ramsay and the film's early reviewers, was lost on me; if the movie has been stuck with the dismaying tagline "Mummy's little monster" - reducing the film, at a stroke, to chortling camp - then Miller's performance must be at least in part to blame.
What Ramsay misses, in fragmenting the text, is any coherent sense of why Eva doesn't kick this freeloading twerp out, or why she doesn't just kick his ass, beyond the vague underpinning notion that "she can't - she's his mom", an assertion reinforcing a bond that - for all the film's giggly scepticism - Ramsay is nevertheless entirely credulous about. If one keeps stubbing toes on We Need to Talk About Kevin, that may be down to the way that, while owning the material for herself, Ramsay has preserved a prickliness central to Shriver's worldview: it is a film to see and talk about, even if you do end up coming to blows with your companions, your fellow cinemagoers, hell, even the fruits of your own loins. The film's shards and fragments pointed me to one conclusion, and in the cold light of the screening-room foyer, I couldn't be certain it was the right one: she should have smothered the brat, and not with affection, but a pillow. I doubt there'll be a viewer in the land who'd convict her.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is in cinemas nationwide.