“So foul and fair a day I have not seen.”
I’m pretty sure I watched the wrong movie because there wasn’t a single elephant in this thing. Either way, I guess I’ll just review what I saw.
Gus Van Sant’s Elephant chronicles the events leading up to a school shooting at the fictional Watt High School in the suburbs of Portland, Oregan. The film is partly based off the Columbine shootings of just a few years prior, which one can only assume directly inspired the film. Van Sant naturally received some criticism for his depiction of such a timely tragedy, especially one that shook the country like Columbine did, so there’s already a question of necessity and responsibility when it comes to the movie. However, I think any subject matter is open to exploration through cinema, and I think Van Sant makes enough key artistic decisions so that Elephant isn’t an exploitative cash grab in any sense, and it’s more of a clear passion project in which Van Sant tries to make sense of school shootings through the events directly leading up to them.
From the outset, there’s a deliberate glacial pacing to Elephant. We open with a long shot of a flagpole for the opening credits with the bright blue sky in the background, a recurring motif throughout the film. Van Sant then begins to play with both time and perspective, showing us a day in the life of various high school students, all of whom are unaware of the fate that will soon befall them. This perspective-hopping takes up most of the film, and it maintains its fascination through some fun cross-connections between the characters. We may see a character rush nervously through the background of a scene and then later, through a different perspective, come to find out what that was all about. It’s a neat way that Van Sant holds your interest as you come to understand the greater chronology of the day (which will be important later in the film).
While I think the obvious meat of the movie is the final sections focusing on the killers and their actions, I found the earlier portions of the film to be equally powerful because of how Van Sant toys with audience expectations. I knew nothing about Elephant except a one-sentence synopsis from Google, and that’s all it took to keep me on the edge of my seat. You spend scene after scene waiting for that next step, the leap towards something out of the ordinary. Perhaps Van Sant is helping us understand human nature in this way, methodically asking us to reflect on how much we really want to see this horrible massacre take place. Especially due to Columbine’s extensive media coverage, the frenzy among the American public surrounding the tiniest of Columbine details, I found Elephant to be a reflection not just on school shootings but an experiment in how we (the audience) think about them.
I really appreciated the adherence to realism throughout the film as well. Van Sant uses some neat tricks with the camera, often for a creepy foreshadowing effect that further play on our expectations, but the movie otherwise feels like a genuine day of high school. Elephant features nonprofessional actors who don’t look like Hollywood actors. Instead, they look like people that I actually went to high school with, and that adds to the chilling realism. The film is also strikingly well-lit, creating an interesting visual aesthetic that complements the movie’s dark subject matter.
I have yet to discuss the second act, which sadly can be viewed as the exciting payoff to the monotony of the first half. I’d rather not discuss it as much, though I’ll say that Van Sant delivers on his promises and pulls no punches. Even in this violent sequence, however, we get insight into these characters that you wouldn’t find in a lesser movie. I don’t think that Elephant ever captures who these killers are completely, perhaps conceding that a 90 minute film couldn’t scratch the surface, but there are some key moments that flesh out the assailants and make for a more interesting narrative at the least.
I have a lot more thoughts on Elephant that I hope to share at a later date, and because it’s so rich and open to evaluation, I found that I really enjoyed the movie. It’s not easy to watch, but it’s careful in its construction and it sticks with you as great art should, so I would really recommend seeing Elephant if you get the chance. Even if it doesn’t have any elephants.
Films Left to Watch: 884