Tilda Swinton Clashes With Her Nightmare Son in ‘Kevin’: Review

It’s tough being a mom -- especially when your son is exhibiting homicidal tendencies.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” starring Tilda Swinton, which had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival yesterday. It’s based on the bestselling novel by U.S.-born Lionel Shriver that won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005.

Shriver’s book makes uncomfortable reading, whether you’re a parent or not. It’s narrated by Eva Khatchadourian, a travel- guide publisher who gets paid to fly to pretty places and leads a life of childless yuppie bliss with her husband, Franklin.

When pregnancy intervenes, life goes topsy-turvy. Eva is beset with nagging feelings of regret. Coincidentally or not, her son, Kevin, is the kid from hell, a manipulative smart aleck who does exactly the opposite of what’s expected of him.

The novel hit a nerve when it came out, because it shattered the enduring myth that mothers never had second thoughts. Women readers were emboldened to face their own ambivalence without feeling mean, guilty or out on a limb.

Shriver’s complex exploration of the motherhood dilemma is largely kept out of the film. Life before Kevin isn’t shown, and Eva’s misgivings are seldom touched on. We only catch her casting a sickened glance at the bare, swollen bellies of other pregnant women.

Scottish-born filmmaker Lynne Ramsay has decided to deliver her own version of “Kevin.” It’s a haunting psychological portrait of a woman whose son is the human equivalent of a slow but deadly virus, eating away at her from the inside.

Criminal Kevin

As in the book, the climax is flagged at the start. Weeks shy of his 16th birthday, Kevin turns criminal, and pays for it, as does his mom. He gets locked up; she gets secretarial work in a shabby travel agency, ducking irate mothers when she can.

Through flashbacks, we get a sense of what it was like rearing Kevin. As a newborn, he screams nonstop. As a boy, he refuses to be potty-trained, and purposely soils his fresh diaper. As a teen, he feasts on chicken before being taken out to dinner. The relationship is a zero-sum game, and Eva is the constant loser.

Ramsay brings a very visual style to her directing. The opening shot shows Swinton being lifted up like a dead martyr by a crowd of bodies smeared with tomato paste. The same blood-red color appears in the paint splattered over her house, and the ketchup squirted on her plate.

With her hair dyed black, Swinton has a fittingly ghostly presence. It’s just hard to view her as a Manhattan professional moving to suburbia with her chubby hubby, played by (talented) John C. Reilly; a more mismatched couple would be hard to find. Try as she does with the American accent, Swinton comes across as impossibly European.

Elegantly turned out in a pencil skirt at the Cannes press conference, the actress -- her hair back to bleach blond -- summed up the movie with a single phrase.

“It’s a very bloody business, being a parent,” she said.

Rating: ***.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” (produced by BBC Films and the U.K. Film Council) will be released in the U.K. on Sept. 2.

The 64th Cannes Film Festival runs through May 22. Information: http://www.festival-cannes.com.

What the Stars Mean:
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Farah Nayeri in Cannes at farahn@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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