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.
DVD extras include theatrical trailer and 'On the Set of Elephant: Rolling Through Time' behind the scenes featurette.
Published August 12, 2004
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ELEPHANT: DVD (MA)
CAST: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Jordan Taylor, Carrie Finklea, Nicole George
DIRECTOR: Gus Van Sant
SCRIPT: Gus Van Sant
RUNNING TIME: 81 minutes
SPECIAL FEATURES: Behind the scenes featurette; trailer
DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
DVD RELEASE: August 11, 2004