An ordinary day at Watt High School in Portland, Oregon. John (John McFarland) is driven to school by his drunken father (Timothy Bottoms); Elias (Elias McConnell) takes photographs of a young punk couple in the park; football player Nate (Nathan Tyson) finishes training and meets girlfriend Carrie (Carrie Finklea) for lunch. Later in the day John walks across the school lawn after being photographed by Elias. He crosses paths with fellow students Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen). Alex and Eric have spent the day preparing for a killing spree inside the school.
Review by Richard Kuipers:
After a couple of competent but unremarkable mainstream Hollywood films (Good Will Hunting, 1997; Finding Forrester, 2001) and a pointless remake of Psycho (1998), Gus Van Sant makes a brilliant return to his Portland, Oregon roots with Elephant. Packing more into its 82 minutes than most studio films can manage in two hours, Van Sant’s bold experiment rejects conventional narrative and makes anti-spectacle out of the horror his beautifully composed images move inexorably toward depicting.
His message is clear: there is no explanation for school massacres like Columbine and no easy fix for a shocked society in attempting to apportion blame in the traditional directions like heavy metal music or violent movies. To make his point Van Sant takes everything we expect from a thriller and turns it against us. The early scenes are shot with a gliding camera around the corridors and classrooms of this typical school. Most of the framing is in wide shot, with few of the close-ups and cutaways that would normally be used to generate tension.
The non-linear narrative introduces us to various school types, including chatty girlfriends who indulge in group bulimia, a shy girl in a gym change room and a boy sent to detention by the headmaster. Many of these moments are revisited from alternative camera angles, as if clues will be revealed or impending doom is to be heightened. Again, Van Sant doesn’t deliver the “meaning” we might anticipate and uses the different vantage points to emphasise the very ordinariness of such criss-crossings during a day at school. There are no lead characters and no one clearly marked out for survival or victimhood, as is traditionally the case in any movie with a body count. Characters we’ve barely glimpsed escape the bullets; others we know much more about and have grown to like are senselessly cut down.
There is no sense of excitement or exhilaration once the shooting starts. It shocks us in its opposition to the action set-piece and invites us to fill in the empty spaces where thumping music and rapid-fire editing would have “entertained” us. The emotional destinations those gaps and unanswered questions lead to will determine audience reaction to Elephant. Many will feel unsatisfied at the apparent lack of catharsis and resistance to resolution and analysis. For this viewer, its almost avant-garde disinclination to engage in formula story telling and the gently hypnotic spell it creates makes it one of the most stimulating and provocative films of the year.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It’s easy to see Gus Van Sant’s intentions, to make a film that recreates the juxtaposition of banal violence with the banal routines of high school life. The film comes after a series of high school shootings in America that have traumatised the nation. Indeed, the world. We all seek answers for the questions these shootings have raised, and smartly, Gus Van Sant suggests none.
While this is admirable in that any answers he might propose will be speculative at best, simplistic and/or artificial at worst, the drawback for the film is that it exists in a kind of vacuum. While this may also reflect the truth – that the shootings also exist in a vacuum, and indeed, are a manifestation of the vacuum left by the absence of meaning and connection in the lives of the shooters. But here I go trying to find answers having already anticipated their irrelevance.
Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowbuy, Good Will Hunting) tells the story of this day by following several students around on campus – quite literally following them from behind for long takes as they walk across the grounds, along corridors and into classrooms. We often see a scene from the reverse angle as students meet. As the cumulative force of the images registers, we get a sense of time and place, albeit dramaturgically void. There are no traditional dramatic structures to serve as handrails and we begin to lose the strength of the connections with the characters – scantly drawn anyway – as time passes.
When in the equivalent of the final act we see two of the male students search for their weapons on the internet and then prepare for their rampage, we understand the social imperative that Gus Van Sant is chasing, but it doesn’t translate as satisfying cinema.
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CAST: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Jordan Taylor, Carrie Finklea, Nicole George
PRODUCER: Dany Wolf
DIRECTOR: Gus Van Sant
SCRIPT: Gus Van Sant
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Harris Savides
EDITOR: Gus Van Sant
MUSIC: not credited
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Benjamin Hayden
RUNNING TIME: 81 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Rialto
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: April 1, 2004