Elephant September 8, 2016
It already takes guts to make a movie inspired by the callous Columbine massacre of 1999, but to write and direct that said movie with no message, no overt sensationalism, and no cerebral explanation in mind is even ballsier. Helmed by Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting), the legendary chameleon of indie, 2003’s Elephant is brilliant, in part, because it so unhesitantly refuses to view its focused upon day’s tragic events through anything other than a helpless, almost detached lens. Unimportant is the analyzation of the killers’ psyches; unimportant is the emotional aftermath. The film is more engrossed with seeing the shooting as it transpires, watching feebly as senseless violence takes the lives of rosy-cheeked youths, so full of vigor and potential.
One might wonder why a movie like Elephant exists. If a film is unwilling to do anything besides essentially recreate a tragedy, with no scrutinizational strings attached to its incendiary self, why be released at all? Evidently, Van Sant wants us to be active viewers. He wants us to be the ones to decide what the prime motivations of the antagonists are, what the repercussions for those involved looked like following the incident. By sidestepping resolution, we have to fill in the majority of the blanks ourselves. It’s a conversation piece of a film, seemingly simplistic until a thirsting to vivisect it makes it something furtively substantial.
Elephant isn’t a movie made for everyone — some will find its near clinical approach reprehensible, and others, if not offended by its intentional dryness, will find it fatiguing, at least until its disconcerting conclusion. Van Sant’s extensive use of long-winded tracking shots (mostly utilized as a way to mundanely follow characters as they move from point A to point B, thus bringing out the paranoia that rests impatiently in our being as we wait) are a lot to take in, and the sparse dialogue forces us to attempt to delve into the minds of characters that are already too thinly drawn to truly understand anyway.
But Van Sant’s disturbingly naturalistic approach is what makes Elephant so consuming. Its characters, all kids you’d find in any high school in America — the introverts, the relentlessly bullied, the artistic, the eating disorder afflicted — are instantaneously recognizable. But here, even the confident basketball star who walks through the halls during times of trouble is not impervious to the dangers of young monsters who are hazards to themselves and others.
And in an age where gun violence is more pressing of a cultural issue than ever, Elephant should serve as a graphic reminder as to why the gratuitous usage of arms is such an ugly point of conflict in American society. (Notice how easily the film’s villains obtain their weapons — it’s merely a matter of ordering from the right website.) Movie violence, with its peppering of heroism and machismo, is not to be found here. Elephant’s violence is immediate, ruthless, inane. If the movie is hard to access and sometimes too dramatically barren to serve as anything besides a disquieting take on the Day in a Life motif, it’s at least a conclusive fire-starter. Only a filmmaker of Van Sant’s exploratory resolve could have made a film of its caliber and make it all come across as instigative instead of irresponsibly provocative. B+