I’ve held off as long as I can in my obligation to discuss “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” I’ve watched it three times since Thanksgiving, yet still can’t wrap my head around a movie that I love but cannot recommend.

I’ve held off as long as I can in my obligation to discuss “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” I’ve watched it three times since Thanksgiving, yet still can’t wrap my head around a movie that I love, but cannot recommend.

What’s wrong with “Kevin?” Nothing, really; it’s engrossing, intense and fortified by a career-best performance by Oscar winner Tilda Swinton. It’s also rich in detail, particularly director Lynne Ramsay’s creative use of the color red as a disturbing metaphor for horrors to come. Yet, in the wake of a succession of schoolyard massacres, most recently last week in Ohio, it’s hard not to be awash in guilt over being “entertained” by a movie chronicling a cold-blooded killer’s progression from womb to prison cell over a harrowing 15-year period. Worse, Ramsay and co-writer Rory Stewart Kinnear (working from a novel by Lionel Shriver) offer little explanation for what causes a young boy to become so adulterated by evil.

The result is a film that is as depressing as it is unsettling; definitely not a fun night out at the movies. But as a psychological study of a shattered mother struggling to make sense of a heinous crime carried out by her teenage son, it’s endlessly fascinating, especially in the way Swinton’s Eva Khatchadourian methodically discovers that everything wicked and selfish inherent in her son sprung from her DNA.

What makes this eerie tale most unnerving is the fact that Eva never really wanted to be a mother. Heck, she didn’t even want to get married. But fate, and an unplanned pregnancy, quickly put an end to her idyllic lifestyle as a globetrotting travel writer. Instead of basking in the blood-red streets of Buñol during the Spanish city’s annual Tomatina Festival, Eva suddenly finds herself being driven bloody mad by a screaming baby. In fact, Kevin’s cries are so loud, so prolonged, that she wheels him to a Manhattan construction site hoping the sound of the pounding jackhammers will drown out the kid’s shrieks. Amazingly, they don’t.

Things only get worse when Kevin turns 5 and his dad (a miscast John C. Reilly) moves the family – against Eva’s wishes – to the suburbs, further cutting Eva off from her support network. So with no friends and no job, she finds herself forced to spend time with the brat, who, despite his age, still wears diapers because he refuses to use the toilet. He even mockingly drops a load in front of Mom right after she finishes changing him. It’s a disgusting act of defiance that finally sends Eva into a violent rage that will result in a trip to the hospital for her son. But much to her shock, the kid refuses to rat her out, thus squelching Eva’s last desperate cry for help.

What ensues is an almost comical showdown of wills, as Kevin (played superbly at various stages by Rock Duer, Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller) delights in pressing her buttons to get the desired response – and always doing it so that she looks like the bad guy in the eyes of his largely absent father, who swears the kid is as right as rain. He even buys him an archery set, oblivious to what his son might one day do with his beloved bow and arrow.

Ramsay (“Morvern Callar”) heightens the tension by jumping back and forth in time, with much of the story set in the present, where Eva is treated like a pariah by the locals, who vandalize her house and car with streaks of bright red paint. Some boldly walk right up to her and slap her in the face. Even a trip to the grocery store becomes an ordeal. At first, you don’t know what to make of all the hostility, but through a series of telling flashbacks, the “why” becomes painfully clear. It’s a testament to both Ramsay’s direction and Swinton’s performance that so much of it is communicated without benefit of dialogue. Swinton, in particular, silently projects Eva’s every emotion in shocking detail, especially after Eva begins to see her reflection in her son’s selfish actions. It’s a haunting piece of acting that surely would have won her an Oscar nomination if the film wasn’t so relentlessly dark and disturbing. Like I said, it’s not for everyone. But even those who appreciate the film’s immense artistic value, may, indeed, find it hard to talk about “Kevin.”

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (R for disturbing violence and behavior.) Cast includes Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly. Co-written and directed by Lynne Ramsay. 3 stars out of 4.