In the wake of the high school shootings in Ohio early this week, the Tilda Swinton film “We Need to Talk About Kevin” might seem especially relevant. Sadly, it would be relevant just about any time. Killing sprees haven’t abated since Columbine in 1999, so you’d hope that a movie like this might give some insight into the phenomenon. But “Talk,” though beautifully shot and deftly acted, is empty and pretentious, an updated “Bad Seed” for the art-house circuit.
Remember that remake of “The Omen” a few years ago? OK, there’s no reason you should. The only thing that made it memorable, in a bad way, was a core mistake by the filmmakers: unlike the smiling, adorable toddler cast as Beelzebub’s boy in the 1976 original, the redo filled the role with a black-haired preschooler scowling at the camera. Could this really be Satan’s spawn? Yeah, well, that’s a surprise.
Multiply that to the nth degree and you’ll understand what limits the power of this new film by Scottish director Lynne Ramsay (“Morvern Callar”). “We Need to Talk…” is a visually rich adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel, and Swinton could have been a best actress contender at the Oscars last Sunday –- possibly because she works so hard to bring color to the film’s black-and-white moral perspective. But the movie is swallowed alive by its own self-seriousness.
Its most arresting image comes near the start: a gods’-eye view of a surging red tide of humanity. It’s like a Hieronymus Bosch canvas of blood-spattered, damned souls — but on closer inspection, they’re revelers in a street festival, celebrating the Spanish tomato crop. In the midst of it all is Eva (Swinton), a travel writer who lives for this kind of freewheeling jubilance. Which makes it all the harder to swallow when she accidentally gets knocked up by nice but bland Franklin (John C. Reilly), decides to have his baby, marries him and moves into his cramped New York apartment.
As if in karmic revenge for her lack of maternal urges, baby Kevin turns out to be a life-crushing demon. He cries nonstop, throws food at the walls and refuses to be potty-trained. The kid is played by three actors, as a toddler, grade-schooler and finally as a glowering teenager (Ezra Miller, cast most likely for a marble-skinned androgyny that mirrors Swinton’s).
The movie — and this is what makes it compelling longer than it has any right to be — is told in kaleidoscopic, time-jumping fashion. It reflects Eva’s mind-set, when shock and grief shatter her usual, linear way of experiencing life. The more she thinks back to her interactions with Kevin, though, the less interesting the movie becomes, because the kid is just B-A-D.
As Lady Gaga might put it, he was born this way. This isn’t a very interesting idea, dramatically speaking; there’s nothing to explore here. The fix is in. If Eva experiences a silver glimmer of hope in her daily life — the apparent friendliness of an office colleague, say — in the movie’s Manichean set-up, a black cloud is soon likely to swallow it up.
In the midst of her domestic misery, Eva manages to publish a book about her long-ago travels. When this was revealed, I found myself wondering why she didn’t address her conflicts with Kevin in print — just as British journalist Julie Myerson wrote “The Lost Child,” barely fictionalizing her problems with the teenage son she kicked out of her house. The movie shows that Eva still has a lifeline to the outside world, yet mostly portrays her as someone trapped in the arid suburban house the family moves into.
For much of the film, Eva engages in a silent battle of wills with her monstrous man-child, interrupted occasionally by the miscast Reilly. His Franklin remains oblivious to his son’s sociopathy, even when Kevin is implicated in the semi-blinding of his sister.
Franklin’s unawareness is probably meant to make us question whether Eva might be simply imagining Kevin’s bad behavior. But the movie’s point of view is so emphatically on her side that the idea is a non-starter.
Oh, well, it’s pretty to look at. After a while, though, even this becomes numbing. Director Ramsay splashes scenes with the color red as obvious foreshadowing. Even Kevin’s eventual killing campaign is depicted a little too prettily, like most of the movie, which never quite engages with the texture and pulse of real life. In its arty seriousness, more naïve than profound, “Talk” feels like the work of someone like Kevin himself — a self-aggrandizing adolescent who would rather antagonize his parents or kill his classmates than to (OMG!) try to talk to them.
What keeps it from capsizing is Swinton’s deep commitment. Here’s another demonstration of the ways this actress can single-handedly keep a movie from imploding from operatic excess. For other examples, check out “I Am Love” and, especially, “Julia” from 2008, a tour de force in which Swinton plays an alcoholic one-woman wrecking crew on the road to unlikely, but weirdly believable, redemption. In “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” she keeps us watching. But in the end, despite her hard work, her victimized Eva can seem as opaque and unknowable as the son who ruins her life.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin.” With Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly. Directed by Lynne Ramsay. Rated R. 112 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.