After the feel good pleasures of The Artist (which I blogged about yesterday) Lynne Ramsey’s We Need To Talk About Kevin is guaranteed to bring you down to earth with a jolt. It  proves that you don’t need graphic violence  to make an effective horror  movie.

In a non-linear narrative, episodes from Eva Khatchadourian’s life converge as she tries to piece together the events before and after her 15 year old son commits horrific Columbine type murders.

In Lionel Shriver’s novel Eva’s grief and psychological torment unfold through a series of letters to her husband Franklin. The only way to render this in cinematic terms would have been to have a voiceover from start to finish, a device which Ramsey and co-scriptwriter Rory Stewart Kinnear wisely reject. The central perspective remains that of Eva, superbly played Tilda Swinton, but this is largely conveyed in visual terms.

In one brilliant scene, she visits Kevin in prison and the fact that she can hardly bear to look at him directly is conveyed by the way that the camera does not look at Kevin either – we see him briefly passing behind her and then there’s a close up shot of his mouth, chewing and spitting out seeds.

Ramsey’s bold and imaginative filmmaking  style is established right from the start by a bizarre opening sequence in which we see Eva literally immersed in a sea of pureed tomatoes in the middle of a writhing crowd at Bunol’s El Tomatino festival in Spain. While we don’t see much blood in the movie, the recurrence of the colour red means that the brutal reality of Kevin’s murders are always in the mind’s eye.  We see the colour in ketchup, strawberry jam, paint, clothes and even the numbers of a digital clock.

In this way, we are never allowed to forget that Eva feels she has blood on her hands and is directly or indirectly to blame for her son’s actions. When Jehovah’s Witnesses call on her house and ask her if she knows how she will spend the afterlife she immediately replies that she will spend it in the eternal damnation of hell.

Ezar Miller as Kevin

You feel that she is plagued by the idea that her son’s hard, self-centred ruthlessness is a distorted mirror image of her own personality.  The absence of bonding between mother and child fuels her anxiety and adds to her guilt as his behaviour becomes more and more extreme.

In interviews, Tilda Swinton (who is a mother of twins) has spoken of  the unspoken fear many women have that they will give birth to a child they cannot love. The convention is that the maternal instinct is part of the DNA but this is no less true than the myth that all men have genes that make them fascinated by car engines and competitive sports.

In the movie we see that Eva has, at best, an ambiguous attitude to parenthood. We see her looking ill at ease in a room of pregnant women. She yearns for her life as a free, independent spirit so you sense a strong resentment to the fact that she is now expected to devote her energy towards her son.

Another aspect that helps convey the film’s claustrophobic quality is in the brooding score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood.  The soundtrack is also full of jaunty tunes like  Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Ham And Eggs’ or Buddy Holly’s ‘Everyday’ which are entirely at odds with the vortex of pain the mother is enduring. This juxtaposition of naive pop songs with complex scenes of tension or menace has an effect similar to that used in the films of David Lynch. The lines of Washington Phillips ‘Mother’s Last Words To Her Son are heavily ironic : I never can forget the day when my dear mother did sweetly say ‘You are leaving, my darling boy, You always have been your mother’s joy’.

Kevin is such a monster that he is not Eva’s joy in any sense of the word.  Ezra Miller as the adolescent Kevin gives a chilling performance and the movie is all the more disturbing as it carries no reassuring messages of hope or redemption. His only motivation seems to be to avoid being a nobody and to make things happen. When Eva asks Kevin what the point of his manipulative and antisocial behaviour is, he answers “There is no point; that’s the point”.

This seems to sum up the movie’s nihilistic message that evil deeds often result from a combination of boredom  and a misplaced vengeance towards the mundane conventions of daily life.