Eva Khatchadourian is caught in a roiling dream at the start of "We Need to Talk about Kevin," a movie about a very tenuous bond between parent and child.
Masterfully played by Tilda Swinton, Eva is being borne through a heal-dressed, red-drenched mass of humanity, sometimes elevated, sometimes dropped, directed toward some unknown end.
There is an underlying logic to the scene. Eva is a traveler writer, and in her dream, she's part of the chaotic mix at the Tomatina festival in Spain, a public food fight in the guise of a civic event. But those lathered and slathered people, streaked with crimson, are emblematic of Eva's relationship with her son Kevin, and his impact on their world.
For those who have not read Lionel Shriver's novel, though, the opening portion of this jumpy movie might well be taking place within that dream. The audience is tossed around through a sequence of fragmentary scenes.
A haggard Eva awakes in a small, shabby house to find its front splashed with red paint. Looking considerably more chic, she leaves her husband and two well-scribbed children having breakfast in a much grander house. With a tense expression, Eva drives through a rainy night toward flashing police lights. Then, she's applying for a job at drab storefront travel agency.
With shots fizzing in and out of focus, aimed at the sky or heading down a pale corridor into a blinding light, director Lynne Ramsay doesn't provide a lot of help piecing the narrative together. Gradually, though, it becomes clear that the downtrodden Eva, accosted and insulted in the street, is the current-day version, soldiering on in the aftermath of some catastrophe while recalling that clean-scrubbed domestic scene.
The screenplay, credited to Ramsay and Rory Kinnear, catches the unsettling atmosphere of the novel, but misses out on Eva's sardonic voice. Coupled with the empathy Swinton generates as a survivor trudging on, doing her best in the face of daily rebuffs, this shifts the balance of the story.