The story of a mother whose son commits a high-school massacre, "We Need to Talk About Kevin," makes sure from the start that you understand the horror of what's coming -- and who's responsible. Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) first appears on screen covered in chunky, blood-red glop. What's more, she's smiling in ecstasy.
It's not a symbolic nightmare but a happy memory of Tomatina, the Spanish tomato festival. Eva, a travel agent, used to be her own best customer, but that was before she yoked herself to Franklin (John C. Reilly), left Manhattan for the suburbs and, even more reluctantly, produced Kevin (Ezra Miller).
Based on Lionel Shriver's 2003 novel, "We Need to Talk About Kevin" -- a sentence Eva never utters -- couldn't be more timely. By sad chance, it arrives in Long Island just days after a school-shooting in suburban Cleveland that left three dead. More purposefully, it's a counterweight against a current wave of comedies about overgrown adolescents panicked by parenthood ("Knocked Up," "Away We Go," the upcoming "Friends With Kids").
Last year's "Beautiful Boy," starring Michael Sheen and Maria Bello, questioned whether the parents of a school shooter deserve any blame. "Kevin" has the answer, and it's yes. Eva isn't just distant but abusive, throwing her diapered son across a room, while her husband is a cheerful clod unaware of any problems. Director and co-writer Lynne Ramsay ("Ratcatcher") may be aiming for a character study of Kevin, but she ends up merely listing the ingredients needed to make a murderer.
The dependably intense Swinton is nearly outmatched by Miller ("City Island"), a mesmerizing 19-year-old newcomer. But "Kevin" fails its characters by never sympathizing with them. When the mother of one of Kevin's victims suddenly punches Eva in the face, it feels like this movie is doing the very same thing.
PLOT The mother of a high-school killer begins to think she may have been responsible. RATING (R)
CAST Tilda Swinton,
Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly
PLAYING AT Sag Harbor Cinema
BOTTOM LINE Fine acting from Swinton and Miller, but the movie offers simple answers to a terribly complicated question.