We see Eva at various stages of her life: post-catastrophe, a pariah in her small New England town; in her carefree, pre-Kevin relationship with Franklin (John C. Reilly); and between these two points, desperately striving to raise a child whose attitude to her, and to everything around him, seems fixed from earliest infancy in unrelenting hostility.
The story pivots around an act of horrendous violence, but Ramsay keeps it, and other instances of chilling malevolence, cannily offscreen, leaving our imaginations to run riot. instead, oblique imagery drops disquieting hints – from splashes of blood red from the joyous mess of a tomato festival in Latin America to the scarlet paint daubed over Eva’s house by her neighbours, or the borderline-unwatchable scene at the dinner table when Kevin, having done something unspeakable to his little sister, sneeringly toys with a peeled lychee.
As the young sociopath, Ezra Miller (Afterschool) gives a scarily convincing performance, his default expression of bored contempt occasionally morphing into a lop-sided grin. Reilly, meanwhile, makes what he can of a thankless role as his father Franklin, breezily in denial of what’s breeding in his household. But the film belongs to Tilda Swinton, inhabiting the role of Eva like someone with her skin flayed off and every nerve ending left exposed and screaming.
Hiding from a vengeful neighbour she’s glimpsed in the supermarket, she cowers behind a stack of tomato-soup cans (that colour again) as if facing a firing squad. Faithful in tone and structure to Shriver’s novel, We Need To Talk about Kevin shows Ramsay extending her range with impressive assurance. But if you were thinking of starting a family, be warned: this film has the power to put you off the idea for life.