Review: Woozy ‘Kevin’ Doesn’t Quite Know What to Say About Columbine

Even Tilda Swinton can’t hold together this exploitative tale of a killer kid and the bad mom who helped make him that way

Not being a parent myself, I can’t say for sure whether or not “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” has a chapter about preventing your child from turning into a teen sociopath. But if it does, it’s a given that Eva (Tilda Swinton) skipped it.

Eva’s haphazard parenting, and its ultimate effects on her twisted son, is at the heart of “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” writer-director Lynne Ramsay’s attempt to adapt the novel by Lionel Shriver and to make some sense of why a normal-seeming kid would suddenly snap and murder his classmates.

There’s an eerie timeliness to the material, given this week’s incident at Virginia Tech, but the film ultimately feels more exploitative and less interested in tackling unanswerable questions.

Ramsay and co-writer Rory Kinnear tell the story out of order, but we know early on that everything’s going to end up badly for these characters. World traveler Eva gets swept off her feet by Franklin (John C. Reilly), finds herself pregnant, and does a rather poor job of hiding her resentment toward her first-born, Kevin.

Apparently sensing her ambivalence toward him, Kevin (played as a young boy by Jasper Newell, then by Ezra Miller as a teen) lashes out in every way possible, from refusing to be toilet-trained to glaring daggers at Eva while faking amiability around Franklin.

As Kevin gets older, and Eva gives birth to a second child, things don’t get any better. And while the film saves Kevin’s big violent incident for the end of the movie, we see Eva become, after the fact, the target of drive-by graffiti artists and slap-prone moms between prison visits to Kevin where neither speaks.

What are we to make of all this? When Gus Van Sant made his own Columbine exploration with “Elephant,” he knew better than to try to dig too deeply into the “why” of such a senseless act of violence, instead exploring the lives of both the brutalizers and their victims, allowing the perspective of each to have their moment.

Ramsay vacillates between pinning the blame on Eva’s distance and suggesting that Kevin is simply a bad seed, but the psychological examination of the characters never digs particularly deep. Subsequently, when Ramsay bombards us with editing tricks and an excess of visual style, it feels like dazzle camouflage designed to cover up the fact that she ultimately doesn’t seem to have much to say on the subject.

I’ve never resented a color before, but Ramsay’s motif of red goes to ridiculous heights. It’s one thing to give us a flashback of Swinton being covered in tomato viscera at that annual pomodoro-tossing festival in Italy, but Ramsay uses the color in practically every scene — red chairs, red police sirens, red flashing numbers on digital alarm clocks, red lampshades — to the extent that at the beginning of each new scene, I found myself looking for the red thing, which took me right out of the movie over and over again.

Swinton is one of the most compelling performers working today, and while there’s not much to this role, she at least avoids seeking even a drop of audience sympathy for Eva. It’s a case of a great actress simply making do, finding what she can in an underwritten role (and a series of unflattering hairdos).

Similarly, the talented Miller (of “Another Happy Day,” as well as one of the best and least-seen American indies of recent years, “Afterschool”) tries to make this monster a three-dimensional person even when the movie seems capable of nothing more than creating a boogeyman. Newell, incidentally, is terrific as well — in the same way that Evan Rachel Wood’s impact in “Mildred Pierce” relies on Morgan Turner’s forceful work as the younger Veda, it’s Newell’s intensity that makes a place for Miller.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” wants so badly to tackle a huge, indefinable horror, but badly is how it does it. The victims of random violence, to say nothing of moviegoers, deserve much better.