2003, R, 81 min. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Starring John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Jordan Taylor, Carrie Finklea, Bennie Dixon, Nicole George, Timothy Bottoms, Alex Frost, Eric Deulen.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 21, 2003
Elephant, Gus Van Sant’s brief (81 minutes) meditation on the Columbine killings, is, wisely, a lot like the real event. No answers are given, barely any questions are asked, and the film unfolds at a leisurely, inexorable pace that stymies the traditional filmmaking tropes of tension and release. You know what’s going to happen at the end, but Van Sant gives the audience absolutely zero to cling to; it has the inexorable pull of a bad dream, the kind where you show up for your exam without your pants on, only much, much worse. That Van Sant would choose the particularly painful and recent horrors of Columbine and its awful offshoots isn’t a surprise per se, either. Both Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, his two most recent "mainstream" movies, dealt with damaged young males, and of course his shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho featured a fractured young fellow as its focus as well. Elephant opens with a sequence in which a car meanders down a suburban street, kissing the curb, parked cars, and mailboxes as it wanders slowly on. In it are John (Robinson) and his father (Bottoms), the latter drunk and in charge of very little indeed. Arriving at the local high school (the film was shot in Van Sant’s native Portland, Ore., and utilizes real high school students as actors), John commands his father to wait for a ride home while he deposits the keys in the principal’s office. This father-son role reversal could be seen as part of Van Sant’s attempt to explain the petri dish of high school disaster, but even that’s a stretch – Elephant doles out little if anything in the way of easy answers. Like the forbidding high school environment, with its echoey hallways and effortless, between-class boredom, the movie is content simply to be. Shot in a cramped frame that’s more like your television screen than the widescreen composition that marks most films these days, the camera of Van Sant and cinematographer Harris Savides glides behind various students with an almost documentary feel. Fully half of this film is spent seeing the backs of people’s heads, which makes sense since that’s pretty much the way it is in high school, whether you’re in a classroom or not. From the lankily handsome school shutterbug Elias (McConnell) to the strapping young African-American student Benny (Dixon), the camera pays only sparing attention to the individual students. At times Van Sant doubles back so that a scene first viewed from one angle is repeated via another, revealing more information, but little that offers any sort of explanation. The young shooters in Elephant, Alex (Frost) and Eric (Deulen), are seen, variously, playing violent video games, ordering guns off the Internet, and sitting in the back of class under a barrage of enormous spitballs, but this feels less like Van Sant’s attempt to rationalize the unthinkable than a pointedly unsympathetic take on mainstream media’s knee-jerk reaction to the abstract reality. When the shooting erupts, and it does, Elephant never even bothers to make it dramatic or even all that visually ghastly. Which, of course, renders it that much worse. Just like high school. (See this week's Screens section for an interview with Gus Van Sant.)