If you are looking for a director with a lot of range, Gus Van Sant has to be your man. After all, he dabbles in the mainstream (e.g. Milk), as well as experimental projects (e.g. Paranoid Park). Elephant is the second film in Van Sant’s “Death” trilogy of art-house films. Even though it stars mostly non-professional actors and actresses, the film was met with critical acclaim, and even won the prestigious “Palm d’Or” at the Cannes Film Festival. At only 81 minutes long, on a low budget of $3 million, and featuring a no-name cast, the movie is essentially a retelling of the Columbine shootings. For the umpteenth time, a great director has proven wrong the likes of Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich, by showing that it doesn’t take money or celebrities to make a fantastic film.
Most of the film simply shows an average day in high school, albeit in clever ways, such as showing scenes over and over again from different characters’ perspectives. True to the art-house form, this doesn’t show a movie high school day, but rather a realistic high school day. Students roam the halls in between breaks talking and acting just as teenagers do, free of cliches. While none of the actors’ performances stick out very much, I’m pretty sure that was the point Van Sant was trying to show. There is nothing special about any of these students; they are just like you and me. When two students eventually begin an inevitable massacre near the end of the film, the killings seem all the more tragic. None of the victims deserve what comes to them, nor do they have any inkling what will transpire, until it is too late. This movie says a lot about the randomness of life and the horror of murder. Because nobody knows anything of the terrorists’ plot, viewers may find parts of the film painful to watch.
I do have one major issue with this film, and that is its final act. We see the two murderous students plot out their rampage, down to their purchasing of guns. The film would have been a lot more powerful if such details were not shown to the audience. In a movie about randomness and not-knowing, less would have been better. Additionally, the shooting itself changes the tone of the film from realistic to surrealistic. While the surrealism does pull the viewer deeper into the story’s madness, realism would have been a more effective way of showing the horror of the situation. There is a huge buildup, showing us how the to-be victims are just ordinary people, only to have them killed in a non-ordinary way. That is not to say Van Sant should have made the violence more graphic; rather, the shooting should have been completely non-stylized. For the most part the film succeeds in this department; it just has its missteps. Nevertheless, the above faults only make this a really great film, instead of a masterpiece.
I will not pretend that this film is everybody’s cup of tea, but do still strongly recommend it. As much of the movie leading up to its conclusion consists of people just walking around or having everyday discussions, do not watch it expecting anything light or fun. Elephant is more of a work of art than it is entertainment. In addition to being impeccably directed, the film carries a strong sense of realism that will either unnerve you or fascinate you. Take your pick.