'He's just a boy. A sweet little boy. That's what boys do."


That's John C. Reilly talking, terribly miscast as a dad-in-denial trying to assuage the justifiable concerns of his wife, played by the fearless Tilda Swinton, in Lynne Ramsay's art-house horror show, We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Kevin, who is Franklin (Reilly) and Eva's (Swinton) son, was a sociopath from the get-go. Even as a toddler he threw out gazes of deep hostility and rage. As a grade-schooler, he shot looks of hatred at his mother, sabotaging the family's domestic calm with acts of vandalism and violence.

And as a teenager, Kevin (played by a convincingly chilling Ezra Miller) walks into his high school, padlocks the doors, and goes on a killing spree. What does a parent do in the aftermath of a Columbine-like atrocity? The parent of the perpetrator?

You live in guilt. You live in shame. You live in pain.

And Swinton, a remarkable actress saddled with a character whose inner life isn't always convincing, walks through Ramsay's movie wrapped in these heavy emotions, blank with dread, trembling in anguish.

Photographed in a palette of jarring color (the red splatters of paint thrown on Eva's car, on Eva's house, by angry neighbors are, in fact, beautiful), We Need to Talk About Kevin really belongs in the genre of parental-dread scare flicks like The Demon Seed, Damien: Omen II, and Rosemary's Baby, although there's no science fiction or Satanic overlay.

How did Kevin become the quiet, methodical monster that he is? Is Eva at fault? Is Franklin? Or is their son a creature of his own making, a cold, cruel, isolated soul?

Ramsay, the Scottish filmmaker of Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar - social realism delivered with an almost hallucinogenic lucidity - doesn't mess around. Kevin takes up archery - a misguided gift from his misguided father (why Ramsay cast the luggish, buffoonish Reilly is anybody's guess) - and then we get a closeup of the teenager's eyes: He is out in the family's garden, bow and arrow at the ready, with the twin reflections of a target where his pupils should be.

Fragmented, dreamlike, a whir of memories and misery, We Need to Talk About Kevin is unsettling, but also somehow unnecessary.

"There is no point," the son says, by way of explaining what he has done to his mom. "That's the point."EndText

Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.