Some movies punish you, but you take it because you’re getting something out of the bargain: an insight, a performance, art, adrenaline. Then there are the movies that punish you for the heck of it.
Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin’’ falls in that camp. Based on Lionel Shriver’s admired 2004 novel about the aftermath of a high school killing spree, the film has the potential to say some dark, discomfiting things about motherhood - about the subterranean anger a woman can have for the children who colonize her body and her life.
Instead, Ramsay delivers an overdirected, conceptually obnoxious art film that’s torture to sit through, listen to, and think about. “We Need to Talk About Kevin’’ stars Tilda Swinton - of course it does - but if her performance is strong it’s also unsurprising, and the actress’s icy persona adds one more layer of arrogance to a movie that’s already much too smug.
The movie takes place a year after the murders, when Eva (Swinton) is living as an exile in a rundown section of town. Her car and house are doused with red paint in an early scene; middle-age women walk up to her and slap her in the face. She has a job at a travel agency run by slack-jawed morons and she guiltily welcomes her martyrdom. Every so often, Eva travels to the facility where her son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), is incarcerated for killing seven of his schoolmates by bow and arrow. He’s not exactly penitent.
(OK, wait right there. Bow and arrow? How hard would it really be for the rugby squad to rush the kid? What might work on the page seems ridiculous on the screen, but Ramsay’s less interested in realism than lugubrious psychodrama.)
In flashbacks, we see Eva’s hedonistic life before marriage - the opening sequence appears to unfold at a rave during a tomato festival - and her cramped, cringing bourgeois hell after she settles down with Franklin (John C. Reilly in high-doofus mode), moves to suburbia, and gives birth to Kevin (played as a toddler by Rock Duer and as a young boy by Jasper Newell). The film pushes the son’s hatefulness in our face: He stays in diapers for years just to spite his mother, pours drain cleaner in his little sister’s eye (offscreen, since gore’s too messy for this director), sucks up to his father, and is clearly planning carnage from an early age.
Is Eva the victim of her son’s nihilism or has she somehow created it? There’s a daring black comedy in the notion of a resentful NPR mom confronted with her own distaste for motherhood, and very occasionally “We Need to Talk About Kevin’’ owns up to it. A shot of an exhausted Eva standing next to the street-corner jackhammer that blissfully drowns out her infant’s nonstop screaming is both harshly funny and recognizable to anyone who has been a parent.
But Swinton’s the wrong actress for farce - imagine how a more vulnerable actress might have drawn us into this nightmare - and the director is too busy stacking the deck with extras out of a Diane Arbus freak show. “We Need to Talk About Kevin’’ operates on two levels of contempt, Eva’s for her life and Ramsay’s for humanity, and the confusion makes for an intolerable experience. (Except, I guess, for moviegoers who already consider themselves superior to other people; they’ll just find their hipster condescensions confirmed.)
Ramsay’s a Scottish-born director who made two striking films a decade ago, 1999’s “Ratcatcher’’ and 2002’s “Morvern Callar.’’ A stylist who creates vivid cinematic worlds, she finds herself tripped up here by her own heavy-handedness - images that congratulate themselves as you watch them. The belabored key color of “Kevin’’ is red: A shot of Eva hiding in a supermarket aisle, her head surrounded by rows of tomato soup cans, is suitable for framing and nothing more. The self-consciousness extends to the soundtrack, which alternates Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant score with jeering country-and-western tunes from the pre-rock era.
The latter do nothing but prove the director’s cooler-than-thou musical tastes, and they contribute mightily to the film’s status as active irritant and pretentious objet d’art. You’re forgiven if, by the end of “We Need to Talk About Kevin,’’ you feel like reaching for that bow and arrow yourself.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.