Written, directed and edited by Gus Van Sant
Presented by HBO Films and Fine Line Features
Rated R; 81 minutes
Here are some adjectives to describe Elephant that I'm sure they'll want to use in all the ads:
Well, maybe those last two
Elephant is Gus Van Sant's attempt to explain - or rather, not to explain - a Columbine-style school shooting. It would make an interesting double bill with Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. The latter is an actual documentary tricked out with every provocative idea and attention-grabbing gimmick Moore could think up. Elephant, ostensibly a fiction film, is quiet, rhythmic and almost maddeningly undramatic - until the violence erupts in the film's final minutes.
For all their differences, neither film really makes much headway in explaining why a few kids become mass murderers, while most simply suffer through the hell that high school can be. Moore's film tries out several explanations, but it's more effective in mocking those who try to simplistically blame such events on, say, the killers' penchant for listening to Marilyn Manson music.
Van Sant's movie, filmed in and around a sprawling suburban high school in his native Portland, OR, follows several students as they go about their day. It literally follows: I didn't time it, but I'm guesstimating that at least one-third of Elephant 's 81-minute running time is taken up with long, long tracking shots of people walking away from the camera. If you have a fetishistic interest in looking at the back of teenagers' heads, this is the film for you.
As dull as this is - and the camerawork's monotony matches most of the dialogue, which ranges from painfully banal to painfully real (and for that reason, occasionally both funny and poignant) - it's also all of a piece. We - the viewers? society? adults? - are always following behind, rarely privy to what's really going on in any of these kids' heads. Again and again, Van Sant makes us aware of what we're not seeing; not just faces but the photos shot by Elias (Elias McConnell), for example. Even when Van Sant does focus in on a character's face, he'll hold the camera in so close, and for so long, that the effect is less revealing than frustrating. We can look as long as we want and we'll never be closer to the truth.
Not that he doesn't tease us with some "explanations" for why Eric (Eric Deulen) and Alex (Alex Frost) turn the school into a theater of blood. Alex is a picked-on scapegoat at school, alternately ignored or pelted with spitballs during class. He and Eric watch a History Channel-style documentary about Hitler's rise to power; the air freshener hanging from their car's rear view mirror is a grinning red devil; Eric plays violent video games while Alex practices Beethoven on the piano. And just to make sure the entire political spectrum is offended, before suiting up to roam the halls with the guns they ordered via the Internet, the two killers share a shower, and a lingering kiss.
But to me, these "explanations" don't really explain anything, except that it's far too easy to get guns (can they really be ordered online and delivered to your home? That seems hard to believe, even in George W. Bush's America.) The film's title refers not only to the elephant in the room (violence and guns) but to the old parable of the blind men describing an elephant: the one feeling its trunk says the elephant is a snake, the one feeling its leg says the elephant is a tree, the one feeling its side says it's a wall, etc. What you think causes violence depends on where you stand, and who you are. And when violence erupts, it's a matter of chance whether you live or die.
To its credit, Elephant, unlike thousands of other films and TV shows, doesn't let us distance ourselves from the violence it depicts. It even made me a bit of a co-conspirator. The film's very flatness made me anxious - and yes, a little hungry for something to happen - even if that something was people getting their heads blown off. I think Van Sant is playing with our desire for narrative: Why are they doing this? How will they do it? Who will live? Who will die? What will it all mean? We don't really get any answers. No wonder this won the Palme D'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival-it's nihilism, existentialism and the shallowness and violence of American culture all rolled up into one. And as difficult as it is to watch, it's an important film.
Click here to read an interview with Elephant's director
and executive producer.