Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

If Gus Van Sant's world view is to be believed, Generation X is disillusioned, disenfranchised and lacking any purposeful direction, other than to try to look good and be cool - rather like this film.

The Elephant of the title refers, according to Van Sant, to a fable of three blind men, who come across an elephant on their travels. Each one touches a different part of the animal and adjudges it to be something it is not. One feels its trunk and declares it a snake, another its legs and announces it a table and so on. It's a shame he wasn't referring to the elephant's characteristics - labouring and seemingingly impenetrable - as this is much closer to what he achieves.

Copy picture

It is a typical day at a middle-American high school, except it isn't, because this is Van Sant's take on the "Columbine phenomema" - what drives kids to gun down their peers in cold blood.

His cameras follow teenager after teenager, as they go about their business, watching them interract, switching perspective from one to another. The timeline, leading to the fatal shootings, is unclear. It seems these kids never go to class. And then it becomes apparent that we are watching the same lunch hour recess from several different viewpoints.

What is Van Sant trying to say? Essentially, nothing new. All of us, over the age of 20, are familiar with the dislocation and disenfranchisement that you experience as a teen and, on the strength of this, all he is telling us is that nothing has changed... except for the slaying.

One of the film's biggest flaws is that the killers' perspective is barely shown. You might argue that Van Sant doesn't want to "tell us what they were thinking." Given that the other children in the school would undoubtedly know and have opinions of the boy murderers, this lack of interaction seems based on a false premise.

The direction is clunky and too full of "clever" tricks for a film which otherwise gives itself over to Dogme 95. The actors are amateur and the settings pedestrian, so why tart it up with slo-mo and hackneyed pieces from Beethoven?

Van Sant has, in the past, been heralded as something of a champion for the gay community, but his heavy handed insertion of the subject here suggests he has lost his touch.

Ultimately, despite its surprise success at Cannes in 2003, Elephant is a disappointment. It offers little insight into the world of teens, takes an age to reach any kind of a climax and leaves so many, frankly unlikely, plot strands dangling.

Who is the film aimed at? Teens will be bored and adults have seen it all before - watch Bowling For Columbine, instead.

For a story about a shooting, Van Sant completely misses the target.

Reviewed on: 29 Jan 2004
Share this with others on...
Elephant packshot
An exploration of teen high school killing sprees.
Amazon link

Read more Elephant reviews:

Scott Macdonald ****

Director: Gus Van Sant

Writer: Gus Van Sant

Starring: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, Elias McConnell, Carrie Finklea, Jordan Taylor, Kristen Hicks, Brittany Mountain, Bennie Dixon, Nathan Tyson

Year: 2003

Runtime: 81 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


Search database:

If you like this, try:

Bowling For Columbine