November 16th, 2003
I recognize the artistic exercise that director Gus Van Sant is trying to undertake with “Elephant.” But that’s no excuse for Van Sant to put the audience through 80 minutes of something, and then have it add up to absolutely nothing.
Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” is set in a high school, but it is not named Columbine. It’s a story centered on average high school students who, one day and without warning, commit acts of ultra-violence against their fellow classmates, but they’re not named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. While “Elephant” directly mirrors the events of the 1999 Colorado tragedy in a fictional setting, the film isn’t constructed to answer questions posed by either itself, or the factual events it’s based on. Bathed in an insincere, “arty” glow; “Elephant” is a whopper of a misfire from the usually accountable Van Sant.
The failure of “Elephant” wouldn’t be nearly as grotesque had Van Sant not already taken a lap around the cinema verite track with this past spring’s, “Gerry.” The Matt Damon and Casey Affleck rumination on nature, survival, and philosophy gave Van Sant a chance to work out some issues he had with modern MTVesque filmmaking, and while it didn’t capture my imagination, I respected his vision for the arid drama. “Elephant” uses the exact same tools as “Gerry”: protracted, unbroken tracking shots capturing life inside the unnamed high school as it happens, improvising actors that are given no direction outside of their own marks, and a story that completely gets off on being both elusive and debatable. Gus Van Sant has come to “Elephant” with the intention of simply shining light on a particularly awful day at school. There is no effort to understand the motives of the killers, the mind frame of the students, or the reasoning behind the filmmaking. I’ve seen hundreds of movies that have failed to make a point in the end, and that’s been fine with me. But none in recent memory have been so glaringly, spitefully obtuse as “Elephant.” This isn’t filmmaking, just Van Sant masturbating cinematically with zero intent to examine over what he’s developed. There are no answers to why events occur in “Elephant.” What’s worse is that there isn’t any questions either.
The picture would be an even bigger travesty if it weren’t so affectionately shot by cinematographer Harris Savides. Savides uses natural light to capture the daily grind of high school, nurturing a promise that Van Sant might attain the unthinkable and finally render high school properly in a major film. The director has hired a cast of unknown, Calvin Klein-ready teenagers to portray the students of the massacre (which is appropriately vivid), also lending the film a prospect of authenticity. But these unprofessional kids are horrible actors who occasionally look into the camera lens and shockingly appear impassive and awkward during the film’s climatic bloodbath. Van Sant assigns each character a name, but fails to do anything else when it comes to a characterization outside of that. Could the reasoning be to pursue a thematically larger idea based on the arbitrariness of the impending massacre? I say laziness and poor screenwriting. Watch Van Sant use bulimia and vapid teenage girls here for comedic effect for further proof of lame content choices.
Van Sant also doesn’t tax himself too hard in detailing the killers’ background, making the two bullied kids sensitive souls who play Beethoven on the piano, but also enjoy Hitler documentaries and first-person-shooter video games. There is also a last minute glimpse of homosexuality between the two boys that Van Sant sets aside (cowardly, I might add) as “curiosity.” Why doesn’t he give them waxy mustaches to twirl on top of that? Well, that would be making a point about the two murderers. The last thing Van Sant wants to do in this movie is to be nailed down to a singular and precise thought. Why, that would make “Elephant” an actual film, wouldn’t it?
At least the endless 5-minute walking takes and mind-numbing story in “Gerry” led to somewhere. “Elephant” is not nearly as neatly planned out. The end of the film is as random as the opening, even with the dramatic foundation Van Sant delicately lays out during the film’s protracted trip to the big execution climax. Van Sant ends the film right at the heart of an important scene. Thank you, Gus. I guess I didn’t want to know how the story ends. How’s that for a big middle finger?
I “get” the indifferent, observational camerawork and naturalistic casting choices. I wouldn’t want “Elephant” to be the silly, movie-of-the-week picture it might have been under a different filmmaker.
My rating: D-