NEW YORK - Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,’’ which marks the Scottish filmmaker’s first feature in nearly a decade, is the kind of movie that will scare the bejesus out of most parents. Based on an award-winning, epistolary novel by Lionel Shriver, the fragmented, dreamlike film boldly trains its lens on the dark, unspoken side of parenthood - the uncertainties, the guilt, the most harrowing fears.
Ramsay’s cinematic comeback, which opens in the Boston area on Friday, stars the singular, Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton as Eva Khatchadourian, an anguished woman grappling with the aftermath of a Columbine-like high school massacre committed by her teenage son (Ezra Miller).
By turns hallucinatory and impressionistic, “Kevin’’ flashes back and forth in time, from Eva’s ambivalence about giving up her globe-trotting life for unexpected motherhood to her beleaguered existence after the crime, in which she becomes a pariah and a willing punching bag for the town’s traumatized residents. In between, she raises a son who grows from a defiant little boy to one exhibiting increasing malevolence, especially toward his mother. Meanwhile, her affable husband (John C. Reilly) remains oblivious to his son’s growing menace.
Viewers hoping for tidy, black-and-white answers to the nature vs. nurture debate should probably look elsewhere, as Ramsay steadfastly avoids pointing fingers.
“Some people come out of the theater and go, ‘Was it nature? Was it nurture? Give me an answer!’ For me to give you a super-easy answer would be ridiculous,’’ said Ramsay, during an interview in Manhattan last fall. “Sometimes that annoys people because they’re used to the Hollywood formula. ‘Who’s the bad guy? Oh, that’s the bad guy. He’s to blame.’ ’’
With just three features in a 16-year career, including her 1999 debut, “Ratcatcher,’’ and 2002’s “Morvern Callar’’ starring Samantha Morton, Ramsay has built a reputation for creating films that burst with lyrical and poetic imagery and steadfastly refuse to tell viewers what to think or how to feel.
On a rainy late fall afternoon, Ramsay was nestled on a hotel patio, bundled in a trench coat, scarf, and fedora, smoking cigarettes and sipping tea. Speaking in her thick Glaswegian brogue, she laughed easily and chatted animatedly, sometimes careening wildly into extended digressions. She was easygoing and genuine, and the conversation was confessional and conspiratorial. At 42, Ramsay still evinces the feisty, rebellious spirit of her days as a film school outsider.
When she was offered “We Need to Talk About Kevin,’’ Ramsay was at first deeply reluctant to do another adaptation of a novel. After all, she’d spent years working on a screen version of Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones,’’ a script she wrote before the novel had even been published. But once the book became an Oprah-approved bestseller, the Hollywood money machine kicked in and Ramsay says producers pushed her off the project (Peter Jackson eventually directed).
As she read “Kevin,’’ Ramsay found that she couldn’t put it down. “It had a magnetic force and a repellent force. I used to read Stephen King all the time when I was a kid, and this had a genre aspect to it. It’s a fantasy of ‘what if?,’ or the worst-case scenario.’’
She and her husband, Rory Stewart Kinnear, ended up collaborating on a script, retaining the novel’s mounting psychological suspense and acerbic humor but jettisoning its epistolary structure. The film took five years to bring to fruition.
While Ramsay doesn’t offer concrete answers, the film dares to ask taboo questions about how a person with sociopathic tendencies comes to be. Is it rooted in a mother’s early maternal mistakes or her failure to form a bond with her child? Is it something that Kevin inherited through biology? Or is it a strange mixture of different factors that can’t be explained?
“I think she knows her own guilt. She didn’t feel that instant connection with him,’’ Ramsay said of Eva, a travel writer who started her own successful company. “The love doesn’t come naturally. And that can make certain things happen. It’s a perverse love story, and it’s a Greek tragedy.’’
While Swinton said that her own experience with motherhood (she has 14-year-old twins) has been a happy one, she recalls this nagging feeling of relief not long after giving birth.
“When I read Lionel Shriver’s book, I realized there’s this taboo subject, which is that moment when for a mother and child there’s no glue on the back of the envelope, that relationship just doesn’t bond. And it can go from bad to worse,’’ she said.
Kevin’s crime forces Eva to face not only the role she may have played in how he turned out, but it also holds a mirror up to her own bitter, contemptuous tendencies. Indeed, both Ramsay and Swinton acknowledge that they want viewers to see a haunting connecting between Eva and Kevin.
“The idea really was that he is playing out her story as much as he’s playing out something separate, which is in fact the worst nightmare for her,’’ said Swinton, after a screening of the film last fall. “I think she wishes she could say, ‘That malevolence, that violence, wow, that’s really exotic to me.’ But you know, the worst thing for her is that she knows it only too well - it is her. All that darkness. That awful little smile that he does with his face. You know, he got it from her! That’s really the nightmare.’’
Ramsay acknowledges the physical parallels were intentional. “That was quite important because there was a mirroring thing going on, similar to [Bergman’s] ‘Persona,’ where their psyches kind of blend into each other,’’ she said.
Ramsay wanted the film to capture Eva’s self-flagellation as she lives inside the pain of the crime. “It’s easy to look back and go, ‘I could’ve done this. I should’ve done that,’ ’’ she said. “You can’t change nature. Sometimes things just happen, and they don’t always happen for a reason. So that was kind of a guiding light in this process.’’
What makes Ramsay such a singular director is the bravura way that she uses luminous, striking visuals to create a mood and an atmosphere akin to a musical composition or to suggest internalized feelings - whether it’s Eva crowd-surfing over a throng of undulating bodies covered in splattered tomatoes or costume-clad Halloween revelers menacingly revealed through the shrouded windows of a car.
“That set the tension really high,’’ said Swinton. “And that’s what you get with Lynne Ramsay, because she’s thinking in terms of this kind of economy of film language all the time.’’
As for the “Lovely Bones’’ debacle, she said that she was pressured by producers to make her script conform more closely to the novel.
“When producers start calling it ‘The Lovely Money,’ you know you’re screwed. I got really burned,’’ she said. “Friends of mine in LA like [‘The Descendants’ director] Alexander Payne tried to warn me, ‘You better watch out.’ ’’
Despite her reluctance to do another adaptation, Ramsay says that she and Kinnear are working on a film set in space that’s inspired by an unlikely source - “Moby-Dick.’’
“I love the themes of that novel. Man is a monster. It’s really about capitalism in many ways,’’ she said. “And Ahab is taking them all to their certain doom. You know, just look around at the world today.’’
Still, knowing her problematic previous experiences with the backstabbing world of Hollywood, she declines to elaborate any further. “I’ll be ripped off by every other filmmaker,’’ she said with a laugh. “I’ve probably said too much already.’’