Screens at CIFF: 10/11 & 10/18
World premiere: 12 May, 2011, Cannes Film Festival

It's not quite the first shot of We Need to Talk About Kevin (that honor goes to the image of a curtain drifting in the night wind), but it's pretty darn close: Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), borne aloft on a crowd of half-naked people writhing around in a plaza full of smashed tomatoes (this is apparently La Tomatatina, a real-life festival in a particular Spanish city), carried like a totem. Her arms are extended in a suggestion of crucifixion, but the look on her face is of beatific, transcendent peace. As attention-grabbers go, you can't get a whole lot more dumbfounding than this, the opening gesture of Lynne Ramsay's third feature, the first after a punishing nine-year gap.

Only in that context - only following Ratcatcher (whose own opening shot is similar enough to that drifting curtain that I presume it's not an accident) and Morvern Callar, and a following silence enough to generate Malick-levels of anticipation for whatever the hell she'd finally come out with - could I unashamedly call WNTTAK a "disappointment"; it's challenging and unique and emotionally apocalyptic, its structure is so unconventional as to beggar description and yet it is the only way this version of this story could be told, and dammit but it's not perfect. Too easy to demand perfection in these circumstances, but I'll admit to my shame that the very first thought I had after the film ended (after "ho-lee fuuuuuuck", because that is the kind of scorched-earth final shot that the film boasts), was "Oh. That it?"

That's it, and it's enough.

WNTTAK is about Eva's relationship to a tragedy - the film doesn't want to tell us what that is, and I'll follow suit, though it's not hard to guess and anyway it's kind of the one thing that everybody knows about the movie - which is relayed to us in a succession of flashbacks intercut with the present day, at which time her crappy shack of a house is defaced with bright red paint, while the locals eye her with undisguised hatred, hurling both physical and verbal abuse at her at every turn. For her own part, Eva certainly seems willing to take it; in fact, she seems to blame herself for whatever happened even more than her neighbors do, given the disturbingly open self-loathing with which she accepts their abuse.

The flashbacks, meanwhile, sketch out Eva's family history, from her early paradise with husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), to her pregnancy and the birth of the couple's son, Kevin. From the first moments, Eva is not at all sure what to do with this strange little being who screams and screams at her no matter what she does, but doesn't seem to mind anybody else; by the time Kevin is grown to be a toddler (Rock Duer), she can only respond to the boy with forced affection; as he grows to boyhood (Jasper Newell), she is downright chilly towards him; as a teenager (Ezra Miller), she is absolutely terrified of whatever dark secrets lie behind his coal black eyes, even before the event that lands him in prison where she visits him for unendurable silent hours in the film's present day.

This is not a film about bad parenting or evil kids, though it certainly seems like it could be both of those things. This is a film about living with guilt and painful memories - we do not know for a very long time what happened to put Kevin in jail and make a pariah of Eva (though it's very easy to guess quite a way in advance), but it is clearly something traumatic and probably violent: she is haunted throughout the film by the color red, which is sometimes used in such a dominating way that the entire screen seems coated with blood, sometimes just touched by the small but insistent reminder of past sins (one particularly memorable early shot finds Eva staring at her reflection in a mirror, a perfectly vertical streak of red along her face like a dripping gunshot wound).

In fact, though it takes a little bit of time to figure this out, there's very little of the film that isn't seen from Eva's point of view, and that especially includes the flashbacks, which are not a depiction of the past as it was, but the past as Eva remembers it, saturated as she is with powerful feelings of guilt and loathing. In her revision of history, Kevin is her little clone, turned into a monster because she was a terrible, unloving mother, and poised to have no regard for other people because she taught him that there is no reason for such gentleness of feeling. Whether or not the story as we see it is accurate is totally immaterial - Eva believes it is. And the film very pointedly refuses to indict her - she does it all herself, and the film simply watches her.

WNTTAK is, then, a character study, though not as its title and plot arcs suggest, a study of Kevin. It is rather a close analysis of the ways in which a woman internalises her responsibility for something that isn't her fault, and how it distorts her view of herself. This is not at all like Ramsay's Morvern Callar, where the title character remains deliberately and enticingly unclear to us: on the contrary, we get to know Eva with almost painful detail, as if not that the subject matter wasn't already enough to make the film a singularly harsh moviegoing experience. The character is magnificently suited to Swinton, whose strengths as an actress (emotional detachment, an ability to be completely devoured by her internal wounds in moments of isolation from other characters, a face with the flexibility of cut granite when she wants it that way) are exactly what Eva, a closed-down, self-loathing figure, requires; if it is not the actress's greatest work, that's largely because she's so phenomenally fucking good in Julia.

Ramsay handles this with all the subtlety of expression we love her for: the film's psychologically linear but chronologically incoherent structure is extremely smart without being pointlessly difficult, and the careful use of visual motifs and repetitions of certain shots is irreproachable. Collaborators such as Seamus McGarvey (the beautifully dusty cinematography) and Johnny Greenwood (an eerie, tuneless score that is by far the most sonically unusual thing I've heard this year) add a great deal of texture to what is basically a horror film about a woman's psychological destruction. The film is amazing, and the only flaw I can see is unfortunately a big one: Ramsay and Rory Kinnear, her co-writer, are simply too intoxicated with setting up the easily-guessed shocker ending, and the slightly less-easily-guessed wrinkle to that shock, used as backup, as a huge "gotcha!" moment; it's simply too precious to reduce what has been a searing, absolutely persuasive character nightmare into a routine thriller, even if it's only for one scene, and even if that scene is a total motherfucker of emotional pornography. Just because she makes it work, kind of, doesn't keep it from feeling cheap, and it is a single blemish on what is otherwise as harrowing and beautifully constructed and fully-experienced as any other work of 2011 cinema.