We Need To Talk About Kevin has delivered a gut-punch to the Cannes Film Festival.

The movie, about a mother (Tilda Swinton) grappling with the aftershocks of a school massacre perpetrated by her sociopathic son, played like an early-morning waking nightmare at the start of the movie gathering’s second day. It earned raves, deeply affecting critics, and stirring predictions that it would claim the festival’s Palme d’Or grand prize before most of the rest of the screenings had a chance to play.

It’s hard to describe We Need To Talk About Kevin simply as a drama – director Lynne Ramsay’s film gets under the skin like a horror story …

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But it’s the realism that makes it chilling. Imagine The Omen, The Bad Seed, or anything from the killer-kid genre of thrillers, but stripped of supernatural hokum and starting at the place those tales usually end, with focus on a lonely, guilt-addled survivor instead of the victims.

“These are not just people her son has killed. She’s killed them, by proxy,” said Ramsay (Ratcatcher) after Thursday’s debut screening. At least, that’s how the mother, Eva, sees it – as well as most everyone else around her in the roiling aftermath of the slayings.

“One of the first things we see in the movie is her being smacked in the face, punched in the face, by a complete stranger, and her first reaction is, ‘It’s my fault,’” says Swinton, who won a supporting Oscar for Michael Clayton and could well become a contender for best lead actress with Kevin.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

John C. Reilly co-stars as Swington’s affable but oblivious husband, and 18-year-old Ezra Miller (Californication) plays the icy, disturbing son, who devotes every moment to manipulating the father and unsettling his mother, who more clearly sees what he is. The movie, based on the novel Lionel Shriver, flashes back to their early family life while Eva tries to get by post-massacre.

Her character is not only living any parent’s nightmare, but has chosen to damn herself , stay in the same town, enduring daily hatred and vandalism, and making regularly visits to her imprisoned, monstrous son, said co-screenwriter Rory Kinnear. His take: she feels she deserves punishment.

No one can know what it’s like to be the mothers and fathers of the Columbine killers, or the recent Tucson shooter – but any parent can imagine that hellish prospect. So while the horror story comparison might seem trite … “Oh no, it doesn’t,” Ramsay said. “I wanted to make a psychological horror film.”

True horror – separate from cheap thrills — helps not only purge, but examine our worst fears, said Ramsay, who was motivated to make the movie because she was thinking of having children of her own.

“I’m at the age where I’m thinking about having children myself, and went to some of these questions about responsibility, and whether sometimes a child is born, and you just don’t know who he is,” Ramsay says.

Though the film doesn’t supply easy answers, she said she came to a couple conclusions. “Don’t buy your son a crossbow,” she joked, and more seriously, a very simple lesson: “spend a lot of time with your kids.”

For more movie news and updates from the Cannes Film Festival, follow Anthony Breznican on Twitter: @Breznican.