"Eeney... Meeney... Meiny... Moe... Catch a... Tiger... By its... Toe..."
An Arab told me once that he understands why Americans look at him suspiciously when he gets on a plane because he feels the same way when he sees an American kid entering the same school as his children. School shootings have become more and more common over the years, and Elephant is Gus Van Sant's film that seems to meditate on this. Adapted from a short story written by Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers), Elephant seems to explore this theme in a different light taking a much more detached approach and not trying to find reasons as to why these horrific events happen. The film is very short and it follows several characters as they walk through the hallways of their High School in very long tracking shots as we see how they interact with one another. The pacing is kind of slow and we know where the film is heading but there is something about it that draws us into the lives of these teens. Van Sant doesn't try to find a reason for the massacre, it just shows us how senseless these acts of violence are and that there is something wrong with our society. This film won the Palme d'Or in 2003 at Cannes and also a Best Director Award for Van Sant. I wouldn't call this a masterpiece, but it has affected viewers in many different ways thanks to this detached style that Van Sant brings without trying to manipulate the audience. That is why so many people got so many different perspectives out of his work. I am not a huge Gus Van Sant fan, but I do respect his work (and Good Will Hunting is one of my favorite films of all time) and Elephant ranks amongst his best smaller independent efforts. It is very different from what a Hollywood film would give you in the sense that it never tries to sensationalize the violent events, and in a way it makes them more abstract and painful. Elephant is a film that should be seen by all cinema lovers.
The events of the film take place during the course of an entire day at a local Portland High School as we follow some of the students through the corridors of their school. First we are introduced to John (John Robinson) who arrives late to school because his father (Timothy Bottoms) picked him up drunk. Once he arrives at school, the principal Mr. Luce (Matt Malloy), is waiting for him to give him a warning. Then we are introduced to Elias (Elias McConnell) who is taking some outdoor pictures of some of the students. The camera then begins to follow several other students as they pass alongside each other and interact with one another. Everything seems to be ordinary about the day, but their routines are about to be interrupted by a fatal event. Two friends, Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen), are planning on shooting their schoolmates for no given reason. We see an early scene of some kids bullying Alex in class, but there is no other motif given. The film then jumps back to show how Alex and Eric get prepared for this fateful day and before heading to school Alex reminds Eric to have fun. The film slowly builds up to this predictable moment, but it is still a shocking 20 minute finale nonetheless.
The way the film is told may be divisive for some because the story is told in a rather slow way following the characters from a distance. It reminds us of the plainness of everyday routines and slowly builds up to the inevitable. Their daily routines are interrupted and innocent lives are lost. It is almost like watching a documentary at times because we just see the events unfold before our very eyes without all the Hollywood buildup or character development. Gus Van Sant makes no judgement, he just places the camera and lets it tell the story as it is. There is no reasoning, no trying to figure out what went wrong, what triggered these kids to do this, nothing. It just shows how senseless these massacres are and how innocent lives are lost from one second to another. The camera work is extremely beautiful and probably the highlight of the film. It is a voyeuristic film in that sense because it simply lets the events unfold before us with no resolution. This can leave some audiences infuriated, but I think it works and deserves all the recognition it has received. It is a unique film.