Lynne Ramsay returns to the world of filmmaking after a nine-year hiatus, and we’re all the better for it. We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ramsay’s hypnotic cinematic adaptation of the novel by Lionel Shriver, manages to combine her medley of heightened aesthetics with a keenly dark sense of humor and place. Tilda Swinton plays Eva, a wealthy author whose son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), has gone on a devastating Columbine-style rampage. Ramsay deconstructs the narrative backbone with flashbacks, flashforwards, and a multitude of pop-music cues that further distances Eva from her surrounding community. In fact, nearly every sequence unfolds under the suffocating guise of overlapping sound bridges that reference key unseen events in the film. We hear the running footsteps, the screams, and loud bursts, but also the quiet sounds of passing cars, playful asides between family members, and drapes blowing in the wind. Each moment—horrific or sublime—becomes a part of Ramsay’s tectonic universe.
We Need to Talk About Kevin begins in a fractured world of stagnation, where Eva is already immersed in the post-massacre suffering process, looking for a job by day and drinking heavily alone in her small house by night. Ramsay paces the staggering first act around a series of confrontations between Eva and certain members of her community, and each typifies the same violent immediacy we’ll later see in Kevin himself. Ramsay lingers on Swinton’s face, using the camera as a magnifying glass to chart the contours of skin caked in red paint and across which the tears from her shell-shocked eyes roll. There’s a mesmerizing ambiguity to these early moments that relays a masterful sense of dread, mostly because Kevin is represented only momentarily through a series of close-ups. Not knowing the why, or even the magnitude of his actions, makes the horror all the more palpable and personal.