Watching this adaptation of Lionel Shriver's best-selling novel, you'll squirm in your seat, but you'll find that you're irresistibly glued to it. That also describes a neat trick most schoolboys would be proud of, but it's small potatoes for Kevin (Ezra Miller) whose worst crime is only hinted at until the end, prior to which he dedicates himself to breaking his mother's heart (Tilda Swinton).
It's a rare kind of psychological thriller, daring to dissect the sacred bond between mother and child, and Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar) pulls it off with great style and sensitivity.
Splashes of red colour the film from the very start with Eva (Swinton) drenched in tomato juice at, what is presumably, the Spanish fruit-chucking festival La Tomatina. She crowd surfs in Messianic pose, dripping with the stuff, and - as the film flits back and forth between Kevin's childhood and adolescence - there are tantrums that see the spillage of strawberry jam and other red gloop, all of which Eva suffers patiently.
These symbols of the anger quietly boiling between them are, perhaps, writ too large, and yet the way Ramsay drip-feeds the details of Eva's tribulations puts us equally on edge, avoiding the linear 'Lifestyle' melodrama this could have been.
There are shades of The Omen in scenes with Jasper Newell as the pre-teen Kevin who refuses to be toilet trained because, apparently, he enjoys mummy's discomfort at having to change his nappy.
His furtive smiles send shivers down the spine, but it's Miller as the 15-year-old, with a determined sense of disaffection - and an eerie half-broken voice - who makes your blood run cold. He even treats his little sister (Ursula Parker) as a pawn in a game to test his mother's love. At least, this appears to be his motivation, even if he's unaware of it himself. In the nearest he comes to remorse, snapshots of a jailed Kevin see him wonder at his own actions.
Eva is also captured after the event, weighing up her own responsibility for Kevin's crime. Swinton is utterly brilliant in the role, profiting from a natural air of aloofness to raise the question of whether she showed Kevin enough love. And yet, her ardent desire for Kevin's approval comes through in equal measure, eyes glazed with joy when, for once, he cuddles her.
Interestingly, this comes directly after she breaks his arm in a fit of rage, and the very next day - reassured of her love - he resumes tormenting her. Much of the suspense comes in waiting for either one of them to snap, as each is so determined to make nice for dad (for very different reasons).
John C Reilly has a thankless task in that role, fooled by Kevin's sardonic displays of wide-eyed adoration, ensuring that any of mum's complaints are casually dismissed. Knowing this, Eva bites her lip as much as possible, putting strain on the marriage, and tempting Kevin to push her even harder.
The building pressure is almost unbearable at times with a violent collision feeling inevitable - so much that you simply cannot look away. Ramsay is careful not to indulge in graphic depiction of Kevin's worst exploits, leaving a more powerful sense that hell is beyond physical experience and, in this case, inside a mother's mind as she wonders where her child is at night.