Pretty much the only comforting thing about fierce Tilda Swinton is the way she reliably produces a miracle every time out. Call it a sign of her own self-awareness, then, that she’s eased into maternal roles only to undermine them: Her inspired turn in 2008’s Julia is now eclipsed by her knockout work as a black-mop-topped suburbanite desperately alone with her squalling infant. Eva (Swinton) hates her life, resents her hubby and wheels her baby carriage next to a rattling jackhammer just to drown out the nonstop wails.
Like the 2003 Lionel Shriver novel it’s based upon, the brooding We Need to Talk About Kevin contains a nightmarish plot point that it barely conceals: let’s just say that we also get to know a visibly ravaged Eva, slightly older, alone and the target of withering abuse from her community. Guilt has replaced the burn, and the brilliantly acute filmmaker Lynne Ramsay fills the frame with splashes of red. Her baby grows into an intractable brat, then an ominous, calculating teen who might be a projection of his mother’s dark cloud. The movie toggles between two periods – before and after a catastrophe – and, were it not for Swinton’s magnetism, it would be unbearable. Instead, you’ll want to stay for the wallop.