Elephant (2003)

28 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Elephant” is a dark little movie, somewhat based upon the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999. It’s a very controversial subject that probably shouldn’t have been made into a film. Gus van Sant probably knew that, but also figured that depicting a school shooting in a film would succeed in frightening audiences. That film is called “Elephant” (why it’s called that, I’m not quite sure).

I don’t think “Elephant” necessarily needed a script and it shouldn’t be considered a docudrama because it doesn’t document nor does it dramatize. It simply watches as students of a high school (not named Columbine High School) go throughout their daily routine until two of them bring guns and shoot up the hallways. Students of the high school were allowed to work as extras for this movie and they blend with the young actors who improvised most of their dialogue. Almost every kid in this film is a non-actor and they are all called by their real first names (Alex Frost is Alex, Eric Deulen is Eric, John Robinson is John).

At many times, we feel like stalkers as we view these kids go throughout their days. A majority of the movie shows nothing in particular happening—just a school day. And since we know that kids are going to shoot up the school, we see certain motives from most of the kids. For example, John is embarrassed because his drunken father causes him to be late for school, a geeky girl named Michelle is embarrassed by her legs, etc. But instead we see two other kids named Alex and Eric. In a quiet scene, we simply observe them as Alex plays the piano and Eric plays video games. We never figure out why they become killers. Maybe they were just had nothing better to do. And once you think about that concept, this is a really terrifying movie. There is not much in this movie that explains why the shootings in this movie took place.

But then again, if Gus van Sant did take the time to fit in an explanation for the shootings, the movie would’ve been more offensive and sadistic rather than frightening. The movie leads up to those shootings with one uneventful day at the school and one of the scariest things about the movie is that it takes place in such a realistic setting. This is just a high school. There is hardly anything different about this school from any other school. And then this terrible event, such as the Columbine High School Massacre, takes place and you get the sense that maybe routines can change and there is no safe place to be. I admire Gus van Sant’s cinematography. He uses Steadycam shots to follow many students through the school day through the hallways, into the cafeteria, and through the school yard. We can’t help but fear that someone is going to come around the next corner with a shotgun.

NOTE: I just discovered why the movie is called “Elephant.” According to imdb.com, Gus Van Sant borrowed the title from Alan Clarke’s film of the same name, and thought that it referred to the Chinese proverb about five blind men who were each led to a different part of an elephant. Each man thinks that it is a different thing. What Clarke’s title actually referred to was the idea of the “elephant in the room.” It’s an idiom for an obvious truth that gets ignored, like an elephant in a room that no one will acknowledge is there.

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