(director/writer/editor: Gus Van Sant; cinematographer: Harris Savides; music: Ludwig van Beethoven; cast: Alex Frost (Alex), Eric Deulen (Eric), John Robinson (John McFarland), Elias McConnell (Elias), Jordan Taylor (Jordan), Carrie Finklea (Carrie), Nicole George (Nicole), Brittany Mountain (Brittany), Alicia Miles (Acadia), Kristen Hicks (Michelle), Bennie Dixon (Benny), Nathan Tyson (Nathan), Timothy Bottoms (Mr. McFarland), Matt Malloy (Mr. Luce), Alex Frost (Alex); Runtime: 81; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Dany Wolf; Fine Line Features; 2003)
“Van Sant has created a beautifully realized film that works so well because it almost forces us to search for deeper meanings.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Gus Van Sant’s amazingly aesthetic psychological docudrama Elephant was winner of the Palme d’Or and Best Director prizes at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. It takes us inside a typical suburban American high school on what appears to be an ordinary day (filmed on location at an upscale suburban Portland, Oregon high school), one very much like Columbine High School in Colorado where in 1999 two male students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, went on a shooting spree killing 13.

After many misfires delving into the commercial mainstream market with the likes of “Good Will Hunting,” “Psycho (98)” and “Finding Forrester,” Van Sant finally hits pay dirt with the experimental film Elephant. It’s a film where he shows he is quite willing to take risks and face the criticism he’s bound to get for weighing in on such a controversial topic without taking a popular stand or some say any stand at all. His other recent experimental film “Gerry,” never amounted to more than a ‘love it or hate it’ proposition in bone-headed inconsequential filmmaking. It’s good to see him back in a groove of making risky artistic films that have meaning such as in his early films of Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho.

The Columbine incident shocked the nation and received a massive play in the media. Many groups had their own explanations for such school violence, including those who blamed violent movies and TV programs, profane records, an increasingly permissive society and the degeneration of family values. Others blamed the government for its militarism and reactionary domestic and foreign policies, as well as the lack of gun control. Van Sant instead refuses to offer easy explanations for what he believes are horrible events that are better left without answers than answers that are either wrong or merely politically motivated. He simply believes that maybe there are no reasons or answers for Columbine, or that the reasons can’t be recognized if we’re so blinded by agendas.

Van Sant has indicated the title was inspired by Alan Clarke’s 1989 BBC film of the same name about violence in Northern Ireland. He originally thought Clarke’s title referred to the parable about several blind men trying to describe an elephant and each one drawing a different conclusion based on which body part he was touching. It was later discovered that Clarke actually meant the thing affecting everybody that nobody wants to talk about. In other words the problems of high school students should be as hard to ignore as an elephant in a bedroom, but they’re also as easy to mistake as an elephant being examined by blind men. Therefore Van Sant believes that we never really know what we are touching in our lives, and such random acts of violence that continue to plague us in our culturally ruptured society cannot be answered simplistically as most critics readily do in order to fit their own preconceived agendas.

In the background, Van Sant saturates the film with the natural sounds and mechanical noises of the day against the repeated playing of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Maybe that indicates there’s a competition for the minds of the American youth that has to be better understood.

Van Sant spends a lot of film time in the sterile halls of a school named Watt (What!) High to make a point how the schools can be both bankrupt and fulfilling when you go inside its modern facade. There is a constant student population passing by consisting of various types including the in-crowd, socially cool couples, the school brains, the invisible ordinary student, fashion conscious students, a girl ashamed to wear shorts to gym class (Kristen Hicks), the mall influenced and boy crazy and bulimia ridden always seen together threesome of girls (Brittany Mountain & Alicia Miles & Nicole George), strutting jocks, nerds, losers, a victim of a spit-ball attack, the marginal students and the enthusiastic school activity buffs. All are played by teenage non-actors and their improv acting from the loosely drawn script is suited to their personality types. The photography is excellently shot by Harris Savides, as his impartial camera is the eyes for us to observe the notorious event.

The very blond long-haired John arrives to school late after lunch because his drunk father (Timothy Bottoms, the only noted actor of the three professionals in the film) loses control of the car and the kid has to finish the drive to school. In school he is informed by the martinet principal (Matt Malloy) that he will have to serve detention for the infraction. The amiable Elias saunters through the park snapping pictures of a passing couple and in the rotunda snapping his friend John’s picture, before disappearing into the darkroom. We peek into a sober-minded discussion between members of a gay-straight sensitivity class where the question posed is how one would recognize that someone is gay. At last, we observe how the two killers (Alex Frost and Eric Deulen) spent their last day. One of the killers beautifully plays Beethoven’s “Für Elise” on the piano early in the morning. The two meet together chowing down on pancakes made by one of their mom’s in her comfortable suburban home. They watch a Nazi propaganda documentary on TV without comment as the program belittles the Nazis for getting the masses to obey them with blind obedience. Playing truant while unsupervised by the their working family, their shipment of high-powered rifles ordered through the Internet arrives and one of them tests the weapons in the woodshed. Their most provocative act before the slaughter in the school, is a farewell shower together and taking their first kiss ever in the shower stall.

The two killers then survey a map of the school and plan their attack. They casually stroll into the building unsearched while dressed in military fatigues and highly armed, as they immediately follow through on their execution plan in a cold-blooded and unemotional way. The blank expressions of the killers and their silence as to motive, leaves the film with a hauntingly creepy look as the killers methodically mow down anyone found in the school. There was no safe haven, as they killed in the hallway, the library, the classrooms, the darkroom, the locker room, and the kitchen meat freezer.

Maybe the bitter message to swallow in this response to Columbine is that there is no place in America to hide from the society we created. What Van Sant sees with stark clarity are the hurts that all the young in America face and how they are unable to cope with growing up without help from adults. He takes a few guesses at what might have gone wrong without saying he’s sure of his reasons. He suggests there might not be many role models for the youngsters to look up to anymore, the culture might be chaotic, and the inherent materialism in the country might not leave enough to satisfy everyone. But there’s enough blame to go around for everyone in Van Sant’s problematic depiction of school life, and maybe that is the reason we should get away from the blame game and start looking at the elephant we have before us. Though that kind of answer might not be a satisfactory one for those into easy solutions, still it is better to get on the right track and rethink things through more clearly than continue on our path to nowhere and offer only cosmetic solutions. I applaud the filmmaker for taking such risks, and find it easy to overlook the film’s many obvious flaws other film critics have so ably pointed out–such as how the film brings no solutions, no moral or intellectual perspectives and only touches at the surface of things. But, nevertheless, Van Sant has created a beautifully realized film that works so well because it almost forces us to search for deeper meanings.