What to do with a baby who never stops screaming, one who grows into a toddler refusing to be potty-trained, in diapers at age 7, spitefully pooping just to make Mom angry? A kid with The Omen/Good Son-level devil about him who becomes a danger, not necessarily to himself, but definitely to others? If you’re a world-traveling writer whose wings have been clipped by marriage and family, sentenced to life in a suburban McMansion, and you're played by Tilda Swinton in the new film from acclaimed director Lynne Ramsay, you get swept up into the madness and let it aggravate your already resentful feelings about being tied down to something so mundane as a parasitical child. When telling him as a toddler that you wish you were in France instead of caring for him, when breaking his arm in frustration over his refusal to go on the toilet instead of in his pants, when staring coldly at him on your regular visit to teen prison (it all turns out badly, by the way, something you learn pretty quickly in the back-and-forth-through-time narrative), it can complicate the argument of nature versus nurture.
On the heels of her performance in I Am Love, where she played a rich, sophisticated Euro-matriarch who abandons it all for an affair with an earthy young chef (he makes her an artful fish soup; they do it on the ground), this bumpy transition into another kind of family disaster finds Swinton winding her way down the stony end of bad mommyhood in this adaptation of Lionel Shriver's novel. She feels alternately guilty – needlessly staying in the town where her son committed his unnamed crime, enduring the attacks of neighbors who blame her for his sins – and defiant, making sure to keep reminding her Baby Voldemort that he’s the real problem.
And sure, he is. This is the kind of kid who makes you wonder when science is going to locate the sociopath gene. But that won’t keep you from wondering why mom and dad (John C. Reilly) never stop to consider that maybe their kid is suffering from some kind of mental illness. Is he too clueless and she too self-pitying to think about what might be the trouble with their hostile spawn? Director Ramsay chooses not to let us in on that discussion if it ever happened, nobody does much actual talking about Kevin. But what we do get is a lot of parallel imagery of mother and son dunking their heads into water, getting red stuff on their hands (tomatoes, paint, jam, blood) and generally twins-ing it up before an odd, cheap thriller climax that will either shock you or make you feel like you're suddenly watching an exploitation film.
Weirdly enough, that climax is kind of beside the point, because the truth is that you're here to watch another showcase for Tilda Swinton. She's always the most compelling presence in any movie she's in, even when everything around her feels overworked or half-baked. And here she's terrific at fusing selfishness and sacrifice before her unchosen life and its rotten kids turn her into a ghostly walking husk of grief. Just don't expect to get any insight into the nightmare while it plays out. Happy Mother's Day!