Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson
Runtime: 81 minutes
Rating: 72% Fresh
Views: 1st Viewing
Gus Van Sant’s second entry into his “Death Trilogy” (which also includes 2002’s Gerry and 2005’s Last Days) has been a controversial film since its initial release in 2003 and its Palme d’Or and Best Director wins at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. Elephant was a truly relevant film upon it’s release, coming just four short years after the Columbine High School massacre, and just one year after Michael Moore’s controversial Bowling for Columbine documentary. Elephant is about a school shooting at its very core, but there’s much more to it than just a school shooting. Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen) are two high school students who one day decide to shoot up the school, with targets including the “jock” kids, and their principal. Along the way, Gus Van Sant’s camera is never not moving, and we follow the lives of a regular day in a pretty regular high school (even if nobody seems to go to class in this school, as everybody just kind of roams around the halls throughout the film).
Gus Van Sant’s roaming camera during the first half of the film is incredibly beautiful, giving the audience an idea of what a regular day at this high school feels like. None of these young teens have any way of knowing about the horrible events that are going to happen to them in a few short hours, and it makes this film (and the reality of shootings like Columbine) seem even more tragic. As far as filmmaking goes, Elephant is a fascinating and incredibly well-structured film. The school shooting scenes are over as quickly as they begin, and are never once easy to watch. Van Sant follows the two shooters with as much care and thoughtfulness as did while following the lives of the students during the first half of the film. The cast is mostly made up of non-actors, and the realism of these performances really comes through while watch the film, adding that much more to the experience.
Elephant is an incredibly troubled film when you really dig deep into its themes and motivations. Van Sant never delves into why Alex and Eric decide to shoot the school up, other than showing us some fairly minor bullying at the beginning of the film. Elephant isn’t about giving us the answers, and one can definitely understand why the answers aren’t provided. We still don’t understand why Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold massacred their Colorado school in 1999, and we probably never will, which is why this works within the film. The trouble with Elephant lies in the symbolism and some of the more subtle imagery Van Sant paints as Elephant wears on. The first time we see Alex and Eric together, one of the them is playing a mindless first-person shooter video game on his computer, giving the indication that perhaps violence in the media is to be blamed for this. In a scene soon after where the two boys are unpacking their brand new weapons, a documentary about the relationship between Hitler and Mussolini is playing in the background. A lot of these things would feel like cute satire in most films, but Van Sant’s direction makes them feel unflinchingly serious in these scenes, to the point of distraction. The point of all this is that Elephant is both heavy-handed and disconnected at the same time, and it simply doesn’t work. I can’t recommend Elephant to anybody, unless they’re interested in truly great technical filmmaking. It’s far too heavy-handed and flawed for me to look past, and I really expected more from a director and writer like Gus Van Sant. 6/10.