Gus Van Sant's high school massacre movie takes controversial subject matter and turns it into entertainment that doesn't feel exploitative or cruel. Clearly inspired by the Columbine atrocity (where two students went on a killing spree at their high school; killing 13 people and injuring many), Elephant isn't the expected documentary/movie hybrid of that terrible day in 1999, it's a fictional story with real-world inspiration. That affords it some legroom -- both in distancing itself from any resentment from Columbine residents, and in the ability to tell a story unrestricted by facts and a storyline everyone knows the ending to...
The Palme d'Or-winning Elephant (named after a 1989 Alan Clarke TV movie about the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland) essentially plays as a realistic day-in-the-life exercise, as we meet a variety of high school students going about their daily business. Many are archetypes, or least identifiable to anyone who's experienced school life: there's the jock and his hot girlfriend, a trio of bulimic girls, the artistic photographer, the gawky outcast, the mature student with the alcoholic father, and the gun fanatic pariahs who will destroy the tension the film goes to great lengths to cultivate.
A short film at a scant 81-minutes, it nevertheless feels substantial and manages to entertain and draw you in as Van Sant's roving camera glides around the school, almost drifting into the next character we'll latch onto and follow for a while. Scenes are revealed to be disjointed in time, often dovetailing into a previous scene, or returning to a previous point that soon appears to act as a sort of narrative crossroads. It's cinéma vérité through and through, and proves to be a beguiling and bewitching way to grab our attention and focus it on the minutiae. We don't really get to know much about anyone beyond what we gleam from body language and brief dialogue, so we just see them behaving and interacting, going about their business without a care in the world, with the audience perched on their shoulders like constrained angels watching an inevitable tragedy unfold.
It's perhaps best to watch Elephant without much knowledge going in, as the film undoubtedly benefits from a sense of investigation and discovery. It's not even clear which students are going to enact their sick fantasy until the halfway mark. Until then, quite a few of the students feel like suspects, which is either a statement on our natural suspicion of strangers in the right context, or an intentional point that it's difficult to spot mental dysfunction in the hormonal breeding ground of school.
I found Elephant to be a well-made and naturalistic movie. The "actors" were mostly real people of the desired age-range, playing characters that were essentially themselves, and the script was written ad hoc during filming. It tackles a tough topic in an engaging manner that refuses to make the last act violence "cool" or something to relish in any way. Instead, the bloodshed is tragic, ugly, senseless, miserable, and monotonous.
Van Sant's movie doesn't hammer home a moral message, either; it's clear to any sane person what the film's trying to accomplish. Perhaps it would have been interesting to get insight into exactly why the killers took such extreme action, or for us to feel a little more attached to their unfortunate victims, for emotional purposes... but we're held at a distance and denied catharsis. Instead, we're just placed in the milieu of the before and after... and left alone to feel what we feel.
writer & director: Gus Van Sant cast: Alex Frost (Alex), Eric Deulen (Eric), John Robinson (John McFarland), Timothy Bottoms (Mr. McFarland), Matt Malloy (Mr. Luce), Elias McConnell (Elias), Nathan Tyson (Nathan), Carrie Finklea (Carrie), Kristen Hicks (Michelle), Brittany Mountain (Brittany), Jordan Taylor (Jordan), Nicole George (Nicole), Alicia Miles (Acadia) & Bennie Dixon (Benny) HBO Films/Fine Line Features - 81 mins. - $3 million (budget) www.elephantmovie.com