Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

Elephant feels like a gutshot movie, a film which is eventually given frightening energy through a singular vision. This is Gus Van Sant's (the disastrous remake of Psycho, Good Will Hunting) artistic attempt to express his feelings about the chaos and madness of Columbine High School on that fateful morning on which a pair of students carried weapons to their school and began killing their fellow pupils.

One of the many things I really liked about the film was its skilled and pretty accurate portrayal of a school microcosm. Some people are needlessly cruel, and all the details in behaviour, the social order, the discussion groups, the day in-day out habits learned and bred, are all here. I enjoyed the straight-up yet understated look at the schoolkids' lives. The kid who cares enough about taking care of his drunken father to skip a few classes, the girl who doesn't want to wear shorts to gymclass, the shallowness of the chatting prettygirls, the mildly obsessive photographer. All these are evinced not through cheap broad strokes but naturally, through the young actors, who are given sufficient time to do so.

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The film is largely told in long tracking shots. Van Sant's labours the lack of the usual cinematic storytelling tools to the point where we are mere observers, aside from one crucial scene in which the murderers are going over their plan, during which the film shockingly cross-cuts between the event and their carefully laid mapping out of the school, choosing optimal paths to create maximum chaos. I found myself shifting posture occasionally, impatiently yearning for another camera angle, to see more of what was happening. Of course, this would break the rules of the film, in that we remain outsiders, never to see more than we would if we were there.

Following a set number of students through the day, many characters are identified through looks, stares, and the way they carry themselves. The film's would-be murderers appear to be creative, thoughtful and smart. There's a moment when one of the kids effortlessly plays Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on the piano, while the camera slowly swivels and allows us to stare all around his room, allowing us to see his drawings, his videogames, his movies; all before he and we are interrupted by the arrival of his friend and co-killer. Before long, he loses interest in the piano, having hit a few bum notes.

On another note, Great Britain has some of the most stringent gun control laws in the world. There is a moment in the film where a FedEx man delivers a package to the kids. Upon gingerly, almost lovingly, opening the wrapping with a knife, we find a charcoal-grey M-16 Carbine staring back at us, with live ammunition, no less. It's a deeply unsettling moment.

And of course, when it comes to the killing spree itself, there are no cinematic tricks, no easy ways out for the audience and no cinematic cliches. We believe, if only due to our knowledge of film cliche and lore, that a particular student is going to somehow stop one of the murderers, or that he's going to die a heroic death. Neither happens. The film is refreshingly and terrifyingly direct in many ways: people drop dead, the carnage reflected in their plain-as-day faces.

Everything about the film seems to fit a purpose, and Van Sant's purpose is to show that we can never understand the reasons why. There are no reasons, no purpose, and no quick easy solutions to Columbine, no ways of preventing sickening violence from happening. Arguments that the film is irresponsible for not providing the viewpoint of the killers is fair, but then again, any attempt to provide reasons for their actions could easily be condemned as scapegoating.

Reviewed on: 18 Nov 2006
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An exploration of teen high school killing sprees.
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Read more Elephant reviews:

Amber Wilkinson *1/2

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


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