By Chris Hyde
January 27, 2004
In his latest film, Gus Van Sant takes on the legacy of Columbine. This
ambitious movie certainly has its moments, but its depiction of the nature
of modern tragedy eventually stumbles to a close.
When a pair of high school students decided to shoot up their Colorado high
school in April of 1999, the entire nation held its breath in wonder. Here
was the moment that many had long feared - where the alienation and violence
that lurks in some teenagers' souls exploded in a brutal firestorm of blood
and fear. In the wake of the horror, finger pointing pundits and so-called
experts filled the airwaves with simple explanations that generally reduced
the incident to plain old black and white; the kids were raised poorly, they
played violent videogames, they were steeped in bloody movies, and they
easily procured weapons inside America's permissive marketplace. Now,
filmmaker Van Sant examines the incident with a fictional film that heavily
draws on real world history and utilizes a vision that is far more ambiguous
than that put forth by the prior blathering of these media wags.
The director's film takes an interesting approach that blends documentary
technique with an artistic eye; though the day-to-day lives of the students
are presented with a somewhat realist sensibility, the floating camerawork,
slo-mo moments and time stretching narrative lend the story an almost poetic
Replacing the mountainous geography of the area where the mass killings
actually took place with the damp confines of Portland, Oregon, Elephant
proceeds initially to take us inside a similar school and introduce us to
the denizens of a place fated to be torn asunder by the end of the piece.
The film's perspective is cryptic from the first; for a long time it's
utterly unclear whether the characters that you are meeting will be killers
The opaqueness of the director's presentation of the story here has caused
it to come under some criticism from those who believe that the lack of
moralistic tone in the film leads to a product in which there is no right
and no wrong.
For my part, I believe this to be inaccurate; for the positive element in
this style is to allow the audience to judge for itself where good and evil
need to sit. However, Van Sant's sometimes cavalier blending of fiction and
reality isn't deep or self-aware enough for the film to be a true bargain
between spectator and film wherein it's the audience's judgment that
completes the film at last. In fact, some of the filmmaker's choices (such
as using the actors' real names as the names of their characters or aiming
for cinema verite moments that are quasi-documentary in form) seem in fact
to be pretty cheap tricks meant to enhance the "truth" being shown on
screen. Unfortunately, to these eyes the result of this is that portions of
the film come off as pretty insincere in their attempt to get at the true
nature of incidents such as this one.
There are other missteps along the way that lessen the final impact of
Elephant. The seemingly required nods to Nazism and first person shooter
games are so obvious that they seem almost disposable; in fact the computer
game that one of the killers plays looks so boring that it wouldn't hold any
adolescent's attention for more than a couple minutes. (Far more effective
as an allusion to videogames are the behind-the-character tracking shots
that oft make the film appear like the audience is playing a third-person
type of game).
Also questionable are decisions like humanizing one of the
shooters through having him spin out some Beethoven on the family's piano in
a scene that I suppose was meant to be perversely ironic. Instead, this
just comes off as a pretentious means of underlining the supposed complexity
of the character and seems as much of an throwaway affectation as the moment
of timid homosexuality that precedes the film's last act. Another choice
that impedes the success of this movie are the bits of brutally overwrought
and heavy-handed symbolism that mar its viewpoint; if the audience can't
figure out what the gathering thunderclouds throughout are supposed to imply
then people are a heck of a lot more naïve than I'd like to think they are.
(Though I'll certainly allow that it does indeed make for a nice visual).
All of the disappointment detailed above should not be read as indicating
that the movie is in any way an utter and complete failure; simply by
tackling the subject Van Sant and HBO Films have made a valuable
contribution to a societal discussion that has mostly been dominated by
those pushing their own agendas or has otherwise been swept under the
proverbial rug. Additionally, though the film's stylistic choices are at
times distracting and its performances often uneven, there are still many
moments here and there that shine through the murk. The filmmaker's
languidly paced use of Harris Savides' excellent camerawork is quite
beautiful at times, and the film's interesting manner of manipulating time
to stretch out the tension is fascinating in its execution.
It's just a shame that even given some nice attributes overall, with final
analysis the movie proves an unsatisfying exercise whose lack of clarity is
underlined by the "pick 'em" children's nursery rhyme that are the film's
last words. In a better movie this choice would give the audience the
chance to complete the film on their own and with their own moral viewpoint
- but unfortunately here the finish is much more akin to a random coin flip
than a moment that weds filmmaker to spectator. For all the parties that it
takes to make a movie, ultimately that's more or less a letdown.