Gus van Sant’s brutal, honest “Elephant” is a movie about a moment in time that defies rationalization: the day when a series of young minds are ruthlessly wrenched into the shockwave of adulthood by a series of grizzly events that mystify us to our basic core. Watching it, one is left with the cold realization that a story like this had to be made for the screen, and it had to be done so exactly with this level of intensity. That prospect may be maddening for some in this sense, however: there are no insights or perspective to mitigate our inevitable psychological collapse, because the director, audacious and rightfully, does not find a point in searching for any kind of explanation. Think of the premise and ask yourself one key question: is there really a point in pursuing answers when we are this far on the outside looking in? This is one of those movies that seeks to simply paralyze with mere actions, stripping them of context and leaving us with an experience of harrowing power.
It’s not as if anyone hasn’t already spent an exhaustive amount of time in contemplating the subject of school shootings, either. Reflect on the media circus that came after the Columbine massacre, or the talking heads on cable news networks that spent days arguing over what lead a guy to walk into Virginia Tech and murder so many innocent people. The common bond in the fallout of senseless public tragedies is often just this: when an answer is not obvious, a populace whips itself into a frenzy of emotion until the wounds are cauterized by some nonsensical bandage. From that also comes the inevitable cycle of public grief: shock evolves into wonder, wonder becomes anger, anger begets blame, blame leads to noise and… what, if anything, decisive? Van Sant, probably just as informed a witness as anyone else about what transpired at places like Columbine, is wise beyond his medium to step back far enough here to make a movie that sees no point in dealing with the mad clamor of such aftermaths.
The day always begins the same: everyone involved will come together out of blank association. The first of the faces we see belongs to John (John Robinson), a kid with droopy blond hair that is pulled into the principal’s office because of being late; though his father’s incompetence in driving him to school is obviously the reason, the face of his superior is unsympathetic, and we gather their conversations off screen are equally cold. In contrast, the aspiring photographer Eli (Elias McConnell) takes the approach of constant observer with certain enthusiasm; it’s as if snapping pictures of others is a window into a world more promising than the dull and gray one that surrounds him currently. Also in this arsenal of important faces is a jock whose rugged good looks make him eye candy for cliques of skinny teenage girls, and a curly-haired girl in glasses who works in the library that does all she can to pass through her prison without calling attention to herself – a virtue, one suspects, when it comes to finding peace in a hotbed of social inadequacy.
The unspoken truth of the film is that it refuses to go in-depth with any of the people it observes. There is no relevance in that, the director argues. Instead, what we get is very brief glimpses into the kinds of individuals that fill the halls of this dream-like existence, all of whom are there for their own reasons that are important only to them, and not to any prying eyes from the audience. The closest it comes to exploring with any sense of insight is with the characters of Alex and Eric (Alex Frost and Eric Duelen), two friends isolated from the daily grind as, we gather, a consequence of also being victims of bullying (there is a key scene early on where one of them is used as target practice for spit balls). Wisely, the film follows Alex home from that experience, where he sits at a piano and plays Beethoven’s 14th Piano Sonata; in the middle of the performance, he is joined by his close friend Eric, who jumps onto a laptop and shoots characters in a computer game while the piano keys are still moving. The scenes are quiet and effective, but a transcending quality emerges beyond that: once we actually realize who these two guys are and what they are capable of, the tone changes from one of fascination to horror, and for the remainder of the movie a fear of what is to come overwhelms all sense of anticipation.
81 minutes is all the time that “Elephant” owns us for, but the short length is often grueling once the mood is established. That’s because Van Sant, so concentrated in the thick of this brewing tragedy, is not content to simply just stand back and watch it all unfold for the sake of some shortsighted subtext. He places himself in the fog of this reality because he knows that’s where he has to be. To match that horrific prospect, he shoots the movie in several long and unbroken shots that routinely spy others from the backside of heads. Why that technique? Because here are lives where the faces will cease to last, as their bodies are wrought with death and destruction when a couple of peers wander into their school for the sake of gunning them all down in a flash of piercing bullets (none of the stars were even actors when the movie was filmed, either). There is a powerful moment that uses this approach with agonizing conviction in the last act, when another face in the crowd emerges as if to suggest there is someone, at long last, who will stand up to the culprits and persevere. The resulting twist, however, ultimately exists to abolish any last hope for a hopeful outcome, because for events like this to unfold, reality demands that film conventions be sideswiped in order to remain true to the facts.
“Elephant” came and went through film festivals in 2003 with a tidal wave of controversy, with some critics calling it pointless while others hailed it a masterpiece. It didn’t come to my sphere of notice until years later, when the wounds left behind from Columbine were still very much potent on my own conflicted soul. To see it now, beyond the fanfare of falsified media grief, is to see the absolute truth of our existence held up in the mirror: some things can never be explained or rationalized, because the human mind is just as dangerous as it is wondrous. Like the two gunmen at Columbine, the teenagers at the center of this movie who task themselves with so much murder and mayhem are not the byproducts of anything other than themselves, making dangerous choices out of circumstances beyond their control but too driven by hate to neutralize them into something constructive. What irony it must be, indeed, to have the same movie camera that is often eager to romanticize gore be at the center of such a startling conflict, and then manage to wander away from its subjects without any prolonged desire to ask how, or why, such things happen in the first place.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama/Tragedy (US); 2003; Rated R for disturbing content, language, brief sexuality and drug use; Running Time: 81 Minutes
Alex Frost: Alex
Eric Deulen: Eric
John Robinson: John McFarland
Elias McConnell : Elias
Jordan Taylor: Jordan
Carrie Finklea: Carrie
Nicole George: Nicole
Produced by Laura Albert, Jay Hernandez, Diane Keaton, Bill Robinson and Dany Wolf; Directed and written by Gus Van Sant