Elephant, directed by Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting), is one of the most daring and ultimately chilling films that I have seen of late. It tackles the topic of school shootings with no fear, and the end result is a film without any easy answers, or answers at all.
The movie is essentially a day in the life of a normal high school, seen from the viewpoints of several students. At the beginning of the film we meet John (Robinson), who is forced to drive himself to school because his father is too drunk to do it. We then meet Eli (McConnell), who has a fascination with photography. We also meet Jordan, Carrie, and Nicole (Taylor, Finklea, and George, respectively), three normal high school girls. Everyone in this film is seemingly normal, until we meet Alex and Eric (Frost and Deulen).
While skipping school on this particular day in Portland, Oregon, Alex and Eric are masterminding a plan to infiltrate their school with automatic weaponry and begin shooting. We see them playing violent video games, ordering their weapons online, and watching Nazi propaganda.
What is most shocking about the characters of Alex and Eric is that they never seem angry. The only instance of one of them having a short temper is when Eric is struggling with a song on the piano, and gives the sheet music the finger. They plan their mission with stone-faced intensity, and never think twice.
Through all of this, Van Sant is unbelievably patient with his camera. Many shots are simply following the characters from behind. People slowly enter and exit shots, sometimes exceeding one minute per shot. I feel that Van Sant’s goal with this was make the film seem “slow”, kind of like high school itself. Yet even with the patient camera work (and even overly patient at times), the viewer cannot help but be glued to the screen. The casting of lesser known actors helps immensely with a film this serious and ultimately controversial. Everyone in the film is average. There are no heroes, and no happy ending. People will undoubtedly be asking questions and even frustrated as the end credits roll, and that is how it should be with a film dealing with this subject matter.
Comparisons will no doubt be drawn to the Columbine tragedy several years ago. Van Sant deals with it head on, as what comes out of the film is that there is no rational reasoning for what happened that day at Columbine High School. The media blames movies, video games, bad parenting, etc. Could it just be that these two boys just snapped that day? Even to this day psychologists are analyzing what could have possibly driven Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to take such drastic and violent action towards their classmates. Van Sant bypasses these issues directly, and instead challenges you to form your own opinion and reasoning. This approach is not only effective, but how it should be. This is not the kind of film where everyone will be feeling the same way afterwards.
After receiving only a limited release in the US, I am hoping that it finds an audience on DVD. The film certainly is not for everyone, particularly those who are still haunted by the Columbine massacre. The footage of two students shooting up a school and being excited about it is disturbing to say the least. Van Sant’s shooting choices only make it all the more disturbing because this seems like the normal, all-American high school that is being terrorized.
Elephant is a ballsy and controversial trip into the minds of two school shooters, and succeeds with the “less is more” theory. It is a chilling and haunting film that will have you thinking for days, and a trip that I dare you to take.
Studio: HBO Films
Length: 81 Minutes
Rating: R for disturbing violent content, language, brief sexuality, and drug use – all involving teens.
Theatrical Release: May 18, 2003 (Cannes Film Festival), October 24, 2003 (Limited)
Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Written by: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Jordan Taylor, Carrie Finklea