Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Written by: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, and Kristen Hicks
Had the tracking shot never been invented, Gus Van Sant’s searing humanization of the Columbine shootings wouldn’t have made it. As we literally wonder the halls of a fictional suburban high school, the camera follows several students in a semi-warped time frame. We often see the same event from different perspectives, much like the end of Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. The time before and after these intersections shows us the same setting in very different lights.
Van Sant is one of the leading auteurs of the gay film movement, and though not all of his films have those themes, his best films often do. Elephant contains a controversial shower kiss between the two shooters, Eric (Eric Deulen) and Alex (Alex Frost), before they embark on their killing spree. It’s not a romantic moment, or even a passionate one, it’s just there.
The rest of the film is largely just there too, and this is why it can be so powerful. The most chilling moment is not when Eric and Alex unleash their ammunition on the helpless student population. It happens the day before, when a girl asks Alex why he’s writing things in a notebook.
“It’s my plan,” he says.
“For what?” she asks.
This moment rises out of nowhere, and since you’ve already seen the two decked in camo and hauling in duffel bags filled with guns, you already know. Van Sant’s gift in this film is not really for storytelling, but in creating a fully realized high school in an hour and twenty minutes. We see the world from different perspectives; some enjoy it, some don’t take it seriously, and others are trapped before the shooting even starts.
By using a virtually unknown cast of actual high school students, this film feels even more real despite the fact that there isn’t really a performance that sticks out. Most of the characters share the first name of the actor who plays them.
Where this film succeeds is taking a tragedy like the Columbine shooting and making it into more than censored media clips sparsed with tragic statistics. Each student we follow’s name flashes on the screen, as if they are each saying “Remember me.” Though they don’t all fall under the maniacal shooters, you will still remember most of them.
John (John Robinson), a boy coping with his alcoholic father that the principal mistakes for skipping school needlessly, delivers the film’s most interesting character. He is the first to see something is wrong when he spots the two shooters carrying bags into the school.
Another one to watch for is Michelle (Kristen Hicks), a tormented girl endlessly ridiculed. Her shocking death is proof that Van Sant is after something different. In a typical indie film, the jocks and cheerleaders would be left to rot while the awkward ones escaped. In Elephant, no one is safe.
The two shooters are treated as ordinary students. Alex is the only one we see in school prior to the shootings, Eric is never there or just not shown. When the two hang out after school, they do sometimes play violent video games. This was a big issue surrounding the shootings, and Van Sant does seem to suggest that it did have an effect on the boys with a chilling POV shot during the shootings that mimics the first-person perspective of the game. However, though they shoot people in video games, they also play Beethoven and, in Alex’s case, pay attention in class.
Another critique Van Sant has is how easily the boys obtained guns, and Michael Moore would be proud that he makes this a priority to show us in the film’s limited time-frame. We see them order an assault rifle, and then go into the garage and practice shooting it on a stack of firewood.
In Elephant, parents are either a nuisance, as in Jonathan’s case, or simply not around to see what their kids are doing. Even the school principal is treated as an overbearing authority figure. Though the movie doesn’t explicitly blame them for anything, the absence of a competent adult is something people notice.
One problem I had with this film is that it probably wouldn’t reward multiple viewings. It is essentially a movie about kids walking around, and without the suspense of a shooting spree breaking out at any moment, it would be duller. However, for a kinetic movie experience that makes you think as it draws you into its maze, it’s a fine achievement.