Cannes (Official Selection) – Lynne Ramsay's third feature is her most ambitious to date, a clever adaptation that makes for exciting cinema. But it's the phenomenal central performance from Tilda Swinton that'll get everyone talking, says Emma Rowley.
Eva (Tilda Swinton) leaves her small, dilapidated house one morning to discover that buckets of bright red paint have been slopped over her car and walls. She appears to accept this without anger, simply grabbing a piece of newspaper and wiping down her windscreen so she can make it on time to the only job interview she can get, as an administrative assistant in a low-rent travel agency. Earlier in her life, Eva was a renowned travel writer. Now she can't walk through town without finding herself on the receiving end of some form of abuse: a stare, a slap, a curse. She is grateful to the interviewer (Siobhan Fallon) who says: I don't care who you are or what you've done. As long as you can type, the job is yours.
Two years previously, her son, Kevin, committed an atrocity and in the eyes of the people around her, Eva is guilty of more than association. As his mother, she birthed and raised a monster who has maimed and killed in the coldest, most calculated manner imaginable.
Lynne Ramsay's third feature is based on Lionel Shriver's 2003 novel of the same name. Ramsay and her husband Rory Kinnear collaborated on the script, which replaces the book's epistolary format by cutting back and forth along a timeline of years as Eva is assaulted by memories which she attempts to order and analyse. Scenes that take place years apart are juxtaposed and sometimes audio from one scene (screaming, whispers, lines of dialogue) is overlaid onto video from another to make explicit connections or highlight the ironies of her change in situation.
It's a brilliant form of cinematic adaptation, all show and little tell; most screenwriters would have wheeled out the clunky narrative voiceover and been repaid with a film that was merely a weak echo of the novel. As it is, the story is ideally told in this medium and the resulting film is completely its own.
A chain of symbolism – a red splatter – links the memories. The paint vandalism is in fact the second time the screen is doused in red, the first (the opening scene) being a trip to the Tomatina festival during Eva's travels, where she and other revellers joyfully drench each other in tomato juice and pulp. The image recurs later, when Kevin destroys the maps covering his mother's study walls by spraying them with red and black paint from a water pistol. After Kevin's crime (but before we see it) Eva cowers behind a shelf of tomato tins in a supermarket in an effort to avoid one of Kevin's victims. These images foreshadow the massacre that is to come and as the story opens up, it's clear that in Eva's mind, there is a direct causal link between them. Her career was curtailed by her pregnancy and she believes that her palpable resentment of motherhood, along with an explosion of aggression when he was a child, seriously affected him.
But did it? Everything we are seeing is refracted though her consciousness (a neat way of recreating the novel's ambiguity; the letters it comprises are all written by Eva, a classic unreliable narrator), and she is convinced of her own culpability. Swinton does something incredible with the role, in the character's present, she never appears self-pitying or martyr-like but her face reflects the sincere penance she is performing. In her memories, her initial adventurousness is slowly transformed into a fraught phoniness as she struggles to bond with her blank-eyed child.
John C Reilly provides able support as the husband who is never able to comprehend his son's true nature; still, his love interest role is muted. Kevin is played by three perfectly cast young actors at different stages of his life: Rock Duer is the toddler, Jasper Newell the child and Ezra Miller as the teenager Kevin. Miller (Californication, City Island) nails not only his sociopathic chilliness but also his moments of vulnerability.
Considering its grim subject matter, the film is a surprising riot of colour (also watch out for yellow, which seems to signal a nasty surprise for the characters), music and mordant humour. A scene in which Eva returns home on Halloween and realises that the creepy festivities might provide cover for more abuse is set to Buddy Holly's 'Every Day', while a visit from Jehovah's Witnesses is punctuated with a shockingly funny punchline.
Rating on a scale of 5 slings and arrows: 4
Release date: TBC
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
Screenplay by: Lynne Ramsay, Rory Kinnear
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C Reilly, Siobhan Fallon, Jasper Newell, Ashley Gerasimovich, Rock Duer
Running time: 110 mins