Let’s credit Gus Van Sant for squandering the capital of his egregious Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester on sincere misfires like a superfluous shot-by-shot Psycho remake and the abstract Blair Witch gloss Gerry. Uneven though he may be, Van Sant rivals Steven Soderbergh as the mad scientist of commercial filmmakers—and the wildly polarizing Elephant is his most successful experiment to date.
Surprise winner at last May’s Cannes Film Festival, the HBO-produced Elephant is a poetic disaster film that audaciously addresses the subject of American high school shootings. It was inspired by the 1999 Columbine massacre but incorporates details from other incidents, treating the material with a combination of bold aestheticism and documentary whimsy. Expertly shot by Harris Savides in the boxy 1.33:1 standard TV aspect ratio, the spectacle is designed for maximum glide—a film of long traveling shots over complex sound bridges. Less staged than unfurled, the narrative is essentially anecdotal. Characters are introduced as they hobnob in their school’s cafeteria or pass through its sterile corridors.
Indeed, Van Sant spends so much time tracking down the fluorescent halls that Watt [sic] High comes to suggest Stanley Kubrick’s haunted Overlook Hotel—which in a sense it is, albeit populated by the sauntering or stumbling ghosts of cool kids and bulimic Valley girls, jocks and nerds, mortified losers and artists manqué. All are played by teenage non-actors and beatified by Van Sant’s rapt attention. Their being—and impending nothingness—is the movie’s real subject. (As in Ben Coccio’s low-budget indie Zero Day, a more psychodramatic meditation on Columbine, the principals go by their own names.)
The tension builds. Paths cross in a chance geography that, depending upon your religious perspective, is a matter of divinity or Brownian motion. As scenes replay from slightly different perspectives, Watt’s locker room and library take on a cubistic multiplicity. An undercranked game of touch football, scored to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (one of the movie’s recurring themes), is transversed by an inexplicably smiling beanpole of a girl who passes through the foreground in ecstatic slow motion. Truly, Elephant (as in “in the room”) is a most unconventional docudrama. The movie’s producers may not have been overjoyed by the near avant-garde narrative structure, but as a Time Warner subsidiary, HBO should be grateful Van Sant overlooks the Matrix-inspired black trench coats favored by the Columbine killers.
The HBO moment comes in a scene that firmly disapproves of adolescent meanness. Otherwise, flagrantly artistic and transfixed by its own enigma, Elephant is strongest on evoking a succession of specific, “empty” moments and weakest on motivation. There’s no crash of heavy metal thunder; the doomed students’ daily routine is punctuated with cutaways to heavenly cloud formations and underscored by only the occasional ominous rumble. Meanwhile, the two alienated shooters spend their homework time down in the basement surfing the Net for guns or watching a TV documentary about Nazi Germany. Van Sant’s worst idea is the chastely prurient Larry Clark touch of having them take a farewell shower together.
Elephant is naturally divisive and disturbing, but it’s also deeply tactful—perhaps too much so. The shooters make a pretty pair of Lucifers, but evil is curiously absent. It’s as if the filmmaker were trying to imagine what Columbine might have felt like for one of the melancholy guardian angels in Wings of Desire. After bobbing and weaving for an hour, Van Sant surrenders to necessity and permits the massacre to proceed. Much of the carnage occurs offscreen, but the sudden chaos of shouted warnings, mad dashes, and point-blank gunfire is no less terrible for that.
Given his plaintive desire to keep things moving forever, even while arresting that flow, Van Sant could have appropriated the title of another high school movie: Time Stands Still. Elephant is a temporal whirlpool in which the artist skims the surface of a particular autumn morning as long as possible before everything is capsized and dragged into the fathomless depths.
“What Lies Beneath: Talking Improv and Introspection With Elephant Actors John Robinson and Nathan Tyson” by Jessica Winter