This year's Cannes-winning, observational drama-commentary about the violence-deadened soul of America, Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" was clearly inspired by the 1999 student massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. -- although "inspired" may be a poor choice of words. The film has so little to say about such events and the culture which produces them that it becomes paradoxically tedious once the killing starts.
Structured like verses in a round, overlapping in time, Van Sant's verite camera follows, one-by-one, a handful of seemingly unremarkable kids (the director cast mostly non-actors) going through the paces of a seemingly unremarkable day in lengthy tracking shots that become strangely intimate and engrossing in their moment-by-moment normalcy.
A nerdy girl is hassled by her gym coach for wearing sweats instead of shorts. A jock throws wads of paper at a quiet boy in class for no discernable reason. A bulimia squad of catty Barbies gossips over lunch before, in a sarcastic touch of dark humor, giggling their way into the bathroom and taking side-by-side stalls in which to upchuck what they just ate.
But in each story there's a tinge of foreboding because of the first student "Elephant" follows. John (John Robinson), a soft-spoken cool kid frustrated with his drunk dad driving him to school late every day, is caught crying by his girlfriend when he thought he was alone -- and through a chain reaction of events he becomes the one person warned away before the attack on the school.
"Just get the f**k out of here and don't come back," says one of the camo-clad shooters as they march toward the school, weighted down by duffle bags full of guns.
As the film's storylines fold in on themselves, you see the two killers in the backgrounds of other scenes again and again, never knowing if this snippet of time will be the one in which the shooting starts. The technique packs the film with early tension, which is curiously eased when writer-director Van Sant switches gears to follow the shooters through afternoons of playing violent video games and watching Hitler documentaries (an ironic satire of the motive over-simplification that always follows such shootings) while acquiring the last of their guns in scenes that defy the kind of backstory to which more conventional directors would surely conform.
But when it all comes together in matter-of-fact scenes of bluntly unemotional bloodshed, "Elephant" suddenly seems as hollow as its default antagonists. While this may be Van Sant's very point -- that such acts of violence are empty and meaningless without looking at the conditions under which they take place -- the fact that he makes no attempt to explore those conditions himself makes the movie meaningless too.
The film is not compelling or insightful; it simply bears witness. But even that doesn't stop the director from sensationalizing the story with a pointless scene of the two shooters sharing a naked homosexual kiss. Those who know Van Sant is gay himself will realize that there's no association implied to the shootings here, so what's he going for here -- controversy for controversy's sake?
Run time: 81 mins
In Theaters: Friday 3rd October 2003
Box Office USA: $1.2M
Box Office Worldwide: $10M
Distributed by: Fine Line Features
Production compaines: HBO Films, Fearmakers Studios
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 72%
Fresh: 113 Rotten: 43
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Alex Frost as Alex, Eric Deulen as Eric, John Robinson as John McFarland, Elias McConnell as Elias, Jordan Taylor as Jordan, Carrie Finklea as Carrie, Nicole George as Nicole, Brittany Mountain as Brittany, Alicia Miles as Acadia, Kristen Hicks as Michelle, Bennie Dixon as Benny, Nathan Tyson as Nathan, Timothy Bottoms as Mr. McFarland, Matt Malloy as Mr. Luce, Chantelle Chriestenson Nelson as Noelle, Larry Laverty as Teacher #3