Actress Tilda Swinton seems caught in the role of mother of troubled teens and shepherdess of similar lost sheep.
She’s played them with quiet panic (as the mom of a suspected murderer in “The Deep End”) and bluster (the title role in “Julia,” sudden guardian in an ill-planned kidnapping). And, in Lynne Ramsey’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which opened Dec. 9 in limited release, she’s bugging out with unspoken paranoia and guilt as the mother to a true monster.
His name, as you’ve probably surmised, is Kevin and, as played by Ezra Miller, he’s not just devilish – he’s almost the devil himself. Yet he seems only to show his vicious nature to his mother – the person most preprogrammed to love him unconditionally – and, later, to his helpless younger sister.
In her jigsaw-puzzle construction, Ramsey hints again and again at where Kevin is ultimately headed and even shows some of the fall-out that is visited on Swinton as Eva, his mother. But her real accomplishment is the performance she draws from Swinton and the actress’ determination to keep it as quiet and hauntingly understated as possible.
Swinton plays a woman who, almost from the birth of her son, Kevin, suspects there’s something wrong with him. And not just unwell – something almost evil in its intent. But, consistently, it is a side he only presents to her – at once hateful and cunning, seemingly punishing Eva while presenting a normal, loving face to his easily gulled father (John C. Reilly).
The suspense here does not spring from the inevitable violence he creates in “Bad Seed”-style, including an in-school massacre. Rather, it’s the torture his mother endures, knowing there is something wrong with her child but suffering the guilt of the damned for thinking that about her own offspring. It’s even worse when she voices suspicions to a husband who doesn’t see it at all. He insists that she’s not only imagining things but that her continued suspicions of her own son are both disloyal and unmaternal.
Miller, recently seen playing a variation on the troubled teen in “Another Happy Day,” has a frightening stillness and intensity, and a facility with shifting gears, adjusting his affect to microscopic degree while achieving maximum effect.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is more suggestive than graphic, but the impact can be dispiritingly nihilistic. Still, a performance like Swinton’s – so gorgeously and painfully calibrated – is something to behold.