We need to talk about suspense

Lynne Ramsay's film adaptation of We Need to Talk About Kevin manages to make a school shooting look tedious.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin was a very timely novel. It was published in 2003, four years after the infamous Columbine massacre, in which two high school students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, killed 13 people at their high school in Colorado, before turning their guns on themselves.

As one of the worst school shootings in America’s history, Columbine sent the US into uproar, with two firmly opposed sides arguing over what might have caused the disaster: the left insisted inadequate gun control practically placed the weapons in the teenagers’ hands, while the right claimed it was violence in the media and video games which poisoned their poor little minds.

Shriver’s Kevin, which won the Orange Prize for fiction, no doubt owes its success to the furore Columbine sparked. It depicts Eva Khatchadourian’s attempt to understand why her teenage son carried out his own school killing. However, to Shriver’s credit, she approached the highly topical subject matter with care, refusing to exploit the fierce debate Columbine created. Told in a series of letters between Eva and her estranged husband Franklin, the novel transcends the issues of censorship and gun control by providing a more ambivalent exploration of the sociopathic mind.

In taking this different tack, Shriver managed to avoid partisan propaganda, and Lynne Ramsay’s film adaptation recreates this sense of ambivalence. Using extensive amounts of montage, Ramsay pieces together the plot in a way that perfectly mirrors Shriver’s frayed epistolary mode. Yet the film’s greatest achievement is its ability to make a story about mass murder seem oddly tedious.

As with many novel-to-film adaptations, We Need to Talk About Kevin is faced with the difficult task of injecting some suspense into the proceedings when the audience probably already knows how it all ends. Ramsay seems content with constantly gesturing towards the story’s bloody finale, and does so in exceedingly blatant ways. Not only do the interspersed scenes of Eva visiting Kevin in prison serve as a bit of a spoiler, but the colour red is simply everywhere – from the opening shots of a young Eva taking part in the Valencian tomato-throwing festival, La Tomatina, to later scenes of an eight-year-old Kevin maliciously defacing his mother’s office with a Super-Soaker full of red paint.

Thus it becomes pretty clear early on that Kevin is eventually going to go postal, and as a result you spend the rest of the running time waiting for the film to finally confirm it. Meanwhile, we are subjected to long and repetitive scenes of Eva trying hopelessly to bond with her sociopathic progeny, raising questions about how far her less-than-perfect parenting is to blame for what eventually happens.

Ramsay has a strong visual approach, and produces a set of stunning montages, representing Eva’s internal struggle to piece together Kevin’s life in her mind and come to some sort of understanding about what he did. However, while technically excellent, these montages never quite compensate for the complete lack of suspense.

As Kevin remarks during one of his mother’s prison visits, for the public, murder is little more than another form of entertainment. And this remains the novel’s and indeed the film’s most prescient insight. In the wake of Columbine, many piously condemned violence in the media, but from video games to news coverage we are all fixated by tragedy. This film does well not to exploit the subject matter for a cheap, dark thrill, yet the care Ramsay takes unfortunately removes any sense of intrigue. This may well be the point, presenting us with the harsh reality behind the sensationalised treatment of murder, but as important as this message might be, it nevertheless makes for a dull watch.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

Watch the trailer for We Need to Talk About Kevin:

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