Ramsay’s film, particularly in its first third, is instead a jigsaw exercise in disassembly, suggestive of a catastrophe so explosive it has splintered time. We revisit Kevin’s conception, birth and traumatic (for his mother, more than him) upbringing, while also dropping in on him in prison, where he plays poker-faced games with Eva’s stunned questions. Note that it’s ‘we’, not ‘she’ – Ramsay’s formal choices, especially the implacable sound design and Seamus McGarvey’s at-a-remove cinematography, impose an eerie barrier between the ostensible storyteller and her guilt-inflected reminiscences, if you can even call them that. By doing this, the film trumps Shriver’s credulity-straining methods of recap, removing control so thoroughly from its main character that she can’t even marshal her own flashbacks – they happen to her out of the blue...As a prickly, leftist, brunette Armenian-American, Tilda Swinton isn’t, prima facie, ideal casting (in fact, you can well imagine an Egoyan version with the strident Arsinée Khanjian) but it’s hard to imagine a certain kind of effortful, teeth-gritting, fundamentally reluctant motherhood being nailed much better. Her rictus of faux-cheery striving with the screaming newborn Kevin sets up one of Ramsay’s most memorable sequences, which concludes with her hovering with the pram next to some ear-battering road works, filled with near-orgasmic relief at the baby-aggro being drowned out. From squalling infant to malevolent pipsqueak, the younger Kevins are terrific, but it’s Ezra Miller (Afterschool, City Island), with his saturnine sneer and mocking sexuality, who puts Swinton – an actress we tend to think of as in charge, especially when top-billed – excitingly through her paces.
For all Kevin’s atrocities, the most stinging moments here are the vituperations of the present-day timeline, where Eva calmly receives a savage slap in the face from a passing mother, or unprotestingly accepts 12 broken eggs at the checkout – another petty act of revenge – and goes home to pick shell out of her omelette as a kind of hair shirt. Underlining the character’s stoic use of self-blame as a coping mechanism – it’s the only rational explanation she can access for what took place – Ramsay’s unsettlingly calm film is really all about Eva. Significant sections of the book dealing with Kevin’s school career are prudently abandoned, keeping his sociopathic behaviour in a what-if realm. Any complaints about opaque psychology seem beside the point, as he’s meant to be nothing more nor less than the worst child imaginable – kryptonite to almost anyone’s mothering instincts.[Sight and Sound]