USA, 2003. Rated R. 81 minutes.

Cast: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Jordan Taylor, Carrie Finklea, Nicole George, Brittany Mountain, Alicia Miles, Kristen Hicks, Bennie Dixon, Nathan Tyson, Timothy Bottoms, Matt Malloy, Ellis E. Williams, Chantelle Chriestenson
Writer: Gus Van Sant
Film Editing: Gus Van Sant
Cinematography: Harris Savides
Producer: Dany Wolf
Director: Gus Van Sant


Grade: B+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

Note: As a coldly realistic look at troubled teens and violence, much of Elephant's disturbing power derives from its ability to draw you in and surprise you. You may prefer to read about this movie after having seen it.

E lephant is going to touch a few nerves. Gus Van Sant's new low-budget indie will upset people because it intentionally recalls—indeed, it closely imitates—the infamous events at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, when disaffected teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold used explosives and semi-automatic weapons to kill thirteen people and wound a couple dozen more before turning the guns on themselves.

When an event like Columbine shatters people's image of idyllic suburban safety, people want a blueprint for restoring control (or the illusion thereof). That means looking for facile answers and tangible bad guys. In the wake of Columbine, pundits pointed fingers at the National Rifle Association, or Marilyn Manson, or bad parents, depending on their pre-formed political inclinations. With Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore made a big show of dismissing easy explanations while attempting a more thorough examination of the incident, but ultimately he, too, fell back on the answer of gun control with self-promotional visits to K-Mart and a doddering Charlton Heston.
Alicia Miles and John Robinson
Alicia Miles kisses John Robinson on the cheek in Elephant

In Elephant, Van Sant's sparsely dispassionate storytelling offers no explanations and defies simplistic analysis.

With the aid of a cast full of real high school kids providing improvised dialogue, Van Sant has created one of the most realistic portrayals of high school ever filmed—vastly more credible than Thirteen's emotionally overwrought depiction of junior high school rebellion or a whole host of improbable teen comedies. Van Sant has imagined a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the Columbine tragedy, and created from it a fictional account set at a high school in Portland, Oregon. Mostly he just follows real high school kids around a real high school, switching back and forth among a group of approximately a dozen main players. With the camera directly behind or in front of them, Van Sant observes each kid for several minutes at a time, often using a single long take as they wander the halls, go to classes, and argue in the cafeteria (a technique that would seem to be a logistical nightmare, particularly with amateur actors and a lot of improvisation).

There's long-haired John (John Robinson), who looks like an easygoing surfer dude, but in reality must manage a drunk father (Timothy Bottoms) who can't get it together to drive him to school. There's photography aficionado Eli (Elias McConnell), so focused on his passion he walks around school with just his camera and not a single folder or textbook. There's homely Michelle (Kristen Hicks), who refuses to expose her legs in gym class by wearing shorts. There's athletic Nathan (Nathan Tyson) and his girlfriend Carrie (Carrie Finklea), the most popular and envied couple in the school. There's the Bulimia Triplets, Jordan, Nicole, and Brittany (Jordan Taylor, Nicole George, Brittany Mountain), who squabble over the exact percentages of time they spend with their boyfriends as opposed to one another before throwing up lunch in unison in the school bathroom (a bit of an exaggerated scene constituting Van Sant's only false note). And, of course, there's loners Alex and Erik (Alex Frost, Eric Deulen), aficionados of violent video games and gun paraphernalia, and constant victims of abusive pranks and scorn.

Van Sant's long takes and his use of Alex's rendition of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on the soundtrack have a deceptively soothing effect. Emphasizing each character's state of mind, exterior sounds fade in or out depending on whether the kid we're following is in his own little world or focusing on what someone else is saying or doing. The Bulimia Triplets mock Michelle as she changes out of her gym clothes in the locker room, for example, but their voices are indistinct, as if heard from a long distance away, because Michelle has learned to shut them out.

The film feels unscripted, yet in just a scene or two per character, Van Sant sketches out a rich emotional life for each kid. All their lives are precious, even those of the more insensitive kids, because each of them is vibrant, alive, and full of potential. We don't want to see bad things happen to them.

Van Sant drops many hints of what is to come. When John's dad proposes that he and John go hunting on the weekend, it is Van Sant's way of showing that guns are a pervasive and accepted reality in the lives of all. The meeting of the school's Gay/Straight Alliance, where kids discuss whether they can tell if people are gay by how they dress and walk introduces an explosive subject, one that Van Sant perhaps can get away with, being gay himself. Later, we hear Alex and Erik specifically targeting "dumbass jocks and shit," which we know the Columbine shooters also did, though they ended up killing fairly indiscriminately.

People are going to pillory Van Sant for not taking a position on the causes of Columbine, but simply by showing an accurate depiction of a suburban high school, perhaps he is. Anyone who was an outsider in high school really does not need Columbine to be explained. Show me a kid who was regularly teased and mocked in high school, a kid who didn't fit in, and I'll show you a kid who fantasized at least once, at least in passing, about doing what Alex and Eric do. Empathy for Alex and Eric can only go so far, though, because there is no justification for actually following through on an idle revenge fantasy. They think shooting people is fun, and their first victims have nothing to do with their misery. They are not just taking revenge; they are releasing pure pent-up adolescent aggression, directing it at everyone. There are numerous causes for that anger, not the least of which is adolescence itself, and the fact that our high schools can be a difficult, Darwinian place to spend our most confusing formative years. With Elephant, Van Sant is saying that there is no single reason for Columbine. To arrive at an understanding, we must begin by understanding the kids themselves—all of them.

[Read the AboutFilm interviews with Gus Van Sant and exec producer Diane Keaton]

Review © October 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images 2003 Fine Line Features. All Rights Reserved.

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