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Don’t write off Gus Van Sant’s Elephant as arty jerk-off cinema just because it won the top film and directing prizes at the 2003 Cannes snobfest. Elephant, which details a high school shooting spree modeled on Columbine, is scarier than anything in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But Van Sant’s aim isn’t satire (Bowling for Columbine) or splatter (Zero Day). The title, borrowed from Alan Clarke’s 1989 BBC film about violence in Northern Ireland, refers to something metaphorically huge that we all see and we all choose to ignore.

What Van Sant sees with piercing clarity are the bruises that come with being young in America. His movie, set on a fall day at an unnamed high school in Portland, Oregon, uses real high school students who improvise their dialogue. Van Sant busts out of the narrative box of his Hollywood hit Good Will Hunting. Elephant, brilliantly shot by Harris Sevides, has the experimental feel that the pair brought to Gerry, which merely followed two lost hikers.

In Elephant, the camera pokes around, catching snippets of talk, observing the beauty of one young face and the desolation of another. Then two students, Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen), enter school in camouflage gear and carrying assault weapons, and the mood switches to skin-crawling dread.

Van Sant’s gaze takes in everything, not just the shooters. Elias (Elias McConnell) snaps photos as he wanders the campus. Michelle (Kristen Hicks) — so shy she won’t undress for gym class — rushes off to her job in the library. Three bulimic gossips — Nicole (Nicole George), Brittany (Brittany Mountain) and Acadia (Alicia Miles) — stare jealously as Carrie (Carrie Finklea) wet-kisses her hottie football hero boyfriend, Nathan (Nathan Tyson).

Stereotypes? Not as Van Sant presents them, sometimes showing the same seemingly casual encounter from different angles, inviting us not just to look but to look closely. It’s the closer look that gets at the problems no one, at school or at home, is noticing. Tow-headed John (John Robinson), being driven to school by his drunk dad (Timothy Bottoms), must take the wheel himself, call his brother for help and then get detention from a clueless principal (Matt Malloy).

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It’s only in the film’s final chapter that Van Sant takes us home with the shooters. All the glib excuses for violence are laid out here, including the ease with which the boys obtain guns on the Internet. Eric plays brutal video games and Alex bangs out Ludwig B. (shades of A Clockwork Orange) on the piano. They watch a TV documentary on Hitler and later take a shower and kiss. This scene has caused the film’s detractors to label the pair “Nazi homos.” Did they hear Alex’s line (“I never even kissed anybody before”)? Did they wonder why parents, teachers and peers never noticed what made these two boys outsiders in the first place? Did they wonder when it became so easy not to pay attention?

Van Sant wonders, and if you watch Elephant with the attention it deserves, so will you. This isn’t a film about what turns kids into killing machines. It is a film that gets at the small things that can drain a heart of feeling. “Most importantly, have fun,” says Alex to Eric as they drive to school. The line is a twisted parody of the brushoff they’ve heard too often. To those who see no purpose to this film, I say the purpose is learning not to turn a blind eye. The unique and unforgettable Elephant keeps its eyes wide open.

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