Though the subject matter is certainly controversial, Van Sant has created a singularly unique vision by using unconventional filmmaking techniques. Instead of using well-known actors, Van Sant put out an open casting call for teens in Portland, Oregon, whittling down the 3,000 applicants and then interviewing them about their lives and their opinions on school violence. Combining a loose script with improvised dialogue, the resulting film is nothing short of amazing.
The first hour of Elephant focuses on the fifteen minutes before the shootings, as well as showing the preliminary plans of the two outcast youths, playing shooter games one minute and ordering guns illegally on the web the next. Each of the students is introduced as briefly as possible, only giving the most important and pertinent information for the viewer to identify them. There’s John the cool kid, Elias, the school’s shutterbug, Jordan the popular jock, a group of gossiping teen girls, and Michelle an outcast with a dark secret. Most of the normal high school rigors from popularity to bulimia to “picking on the quiet girl” are briefly touched upon. Though most of the scenes are rather mundane, it’s impossible to relax while watching them, as you’re kept on the edge of your seat knowing where the story is leading. The tone of the film is mostly somber and subdued, making the assault itself even more shocking in its brutality.
One of the movie’s few faults is the short running time of just over 80 minutes. (The brevity of the film may have been because it was originally conceived as an HBO movie.) Van Sant could certainly have explored the characters more if given the chance, but in some ways, the lack of knowledge beyond the most basic of character traits makes their fates even more poignant.
Elephant‘s title is taken from a film by British filmmaker Arthur Young about sectarian killings in Northern Island with the implication that violence is as easy to ignore as an “elephant in your living room”. It’s never clear whether the elephant of this movie is the violence or the lax school system itself, but it’s obvious that something is wrong when two students can walk into a school fully armed and start killing fellow students.
Noted documentarian Michael Moore explored the environment that led to school violence and the assault at Columbine High School in his Oscar winning Bowling for Columbine, showing actual footage from the incident. By comparison, Van Sant doesn’t try to explain the actions of the killers or get into the reasoning for doing what they did. The amount left open for interpretation by Elephant might bother some and make them wonder about Van Sant’s motives for making the film. Others may feel that Elephant is exploitative of the Columbine shootings, since-regardless of statements by Van Sant and the producers to the contrary-it recreates the shootings almost exactly down to the number of students shot to the order of the killings. Either way, the more you know about the incident, the harder it is to watch it unfold.
In his early days, Van Sant discovered a lot of promising young talent like Matt Dillon, Keanu Reeves, River Phoenix and others. Once again, he has assembled an amazing cast of young talent to create a believable high school environment. While most of the teens are good-looking and seemingly affluent, they also seem more real than most movie teens, maybe because they use their real names and personalities. The realistic way they speak and interact makes one realize how well 80s’ movies like Heathers, Phil Joanou’s 3 O’clock High, and John Hughes’ films got it right.
There are two true standout talents in the cast: Alex Frost is extremely strong as the mastermind behind the terror assault, emanating a cool calmness throughout that makes his actions even eerier. It’s an amazing performance that might be compared to Christian Bale in American Psycho in its effectiveness and intensity. His talent is most evident when he plays Beethoven’s “Fur Elise”, abruptly turning it into chaotic discord. John Robinson, the first seen on screen as he is driven to school by his drunken father (played by Timothy Bottoms), steals many scenes with his blonde locks and good looks. Though not as strong an actor, he does a decent job portraying the more laid-back attitude of high school students, contrasted with sheer panic as he tries to get to safety once the assault begins.
The camerawork and cinematography by frequent Van Sant collaborator, Harris Savides, are nothing short of amazing, making even the most mundane scenes a gorgeous look. The camera follows each student on long, meandering trips through the school’s hallways, something Van Sant has stated was done to show the passage of time, rather than using hard cuts between the scenes. Some scenes are shown multiple times from different angles to show the viewpoints of the different characters, and the contrast between the languid pre-assault scenes to the actual assault makes the latter even more shocking. Savides’ camera also performs wonders with the vacant high school used for the film’s setting, turning empty rooms into large cavernous spaces, symbolizing the isolation of the students.
The use of Beethoven’s “Fur D’ Elise” and “Moonlight Sonata”, mixed with ambient electronic music, is very effective, but Van Sant’s eerie use of complete silence in some scenes makes them even more haunting.
Despite the difficult nature of the film, Gus Van Sant has made a powerful and moving film that might be considered one of the most important films of the year. Well worthy of the awards and accolades it has received thus far, Elephant is a captivating film that documents, but doesn’t try to explain, one of the most horrifying incidents in recent American history. It probably should be deemed as an educational tool in finding a solution to the problem of school violence, rather than as light entertainment.
Elephant opens in New York and Los Angeles this coming Friday, October 24th, and then expands into more cities on November 7th.