Swinton soars as devoted mother of a homicidal boy

TILDA SWINTON generated some awards-season buzz for her role as the mother of a homicidal boy in "We Need to Talk About Kevin."

And indeed, Swinton is by far the best thing about "Kevin," a strange, starchy look at the relationship between a creepy child and the mother whose exhaustive attempts at nurturing are met with cold stares.

Eva (Swinton) suspects immediately that there is something wrong with her infant son - he screams constantly, and no amount of coddling or hugging alleviates his mood. Director Lynne Ramsay crafts a great scene to drive this point home. Eva pushes the squalling infant down the street, pausing - just for a moment - next to a jackhammer to drown out the noise. Any parent can find something truthful in that.

In other ways, Ramsey goes somewhat overboard with the design of the movie. It feels very art-directed, and the color red is used (overused) to foreshadow what will happen, and to remind us of what has happened.

The time-fractured chronology sets up as a before-and-after. In the middle (this is not a spoiler) is a crime the boy commits as an adolescent. Young Kevin is played by Jasper Newell, effectively sinister, but limited in scope by the pathology of his unfeeling, unemotive character.

Swinton is the show here. She's one of the movies' great contemporary conveyors of emotional/psychology information, and without much dialogue here is able to define Eva's predicament. She is determined to love her son, despite his complete absence of empathy.

The boy does not love his mother, or anybody, but he does come to recognize her fierce maternal determination, her intelligence. He respects her in a way that he does not respect his enabling, in-denial father (John C. Reilly). The title refers to Eva's frustrated attempts to alert her husband to the boy's dark side.

You believe everything about Eva - her single-minded devotion, the way she endures the trials of rearing this monster, of living with the consequences.

It's the rest of "Kevin" that feels less than credible. You understand the symbolism implied in Kevin's choice of weapon, but I didn't really believe it could work as a WMD.

And I was baffled by the ending, when mother and son finally have a meeting of the minds. It seemed to undo much of what I thought I understood about Kevin.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Directed by Lynne Ramsay. With Ezra Miller, Joseph Melendez, John C. Reilly, Tilda Swinton, Siobhan Fallon. Distributed by Oscilloscope Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 50 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for disturbing violence and behavior, some sexuality and language).