The opening of Lynne Ramsay's new movie, "We Need to Talk About Kevin," shows a free-spirited woman, Eva Khatchadourian (played by Tilda Swinton), blissfully lost in the oceanic crowd of a European bacchanalia. Cut to the same woman, at some unspecified time later, now looking mousy-haired and rail thin, who meekly accepts a face slap from an enraged hausfrau and a house doused with paint by unseen vandals. The former woman is as confident and worldly as the later is haunted and broken. The transformation is so striking and complete that it is, no doubt, the reason why Swinton has received a Golden Globe nomination for best actress, and she might very well get the nod from the Academy this year.
The cause of this metamorphosis is her son, Kevin, who might be the worst offspring in movies since Damien shoved his mother off the balcony in "The Omen." While the origins of Damien's evil is obvious -- he's the Antichrist, after all -- the origins of Kevin's malevolence is not. What is clear is that he has committed a Columbine-like school massacre, and Eva, rightly or not, feels very responsible for her son's crimes.
The film opens with a stunning half-hour long montage that is a triumph of both editing and sound. In it, we see a portrait of not only a baby that very quickly grows into a sociopathic monster, but also of Eva's ambivalence toward motherhood and her surrendering of a life of urban independence for one of suburban mediocrity. At one point, in a prenatal yoga class, the other mothers proudly show off their baby bumps while Eva hides hers. At another point, Eva wheels her colicky infant to a construction site so the sound of jackhammers can drown out his cries. At another, Kevin's utter unwillingness to interact with Eva during a simple game is met with growing frustration edged with resentment. As the film progresses, Kevin's response toward his mother ranges from indifference to cruelty. At times, Kevin feels less like a character than an amalgam of parenting nightmares, from colic to autism to Dylan Klebold.
Lynn Ramsay is not what you'd call a subtle director. Her heavy-handed use of the color red starts to feel overwrought after a while. And did Kevin really need to devour the gratuitously ocular-looking lychee fruit just after causing grievous eye damage to an innocent? Neither really diminishes the power of the movie. It's a beautifully shot, beautifully acted horror film that will stick in your mind long after the credits roll.