In Elephant, director Gus Van Zant takes us through a normal, almost banal day at a suburban Oregon high school whose student body is as varied as any high school in the country. There are cliques, outcasts and those who seem to move among the various social strata with ease. For some high school is a great time, for others it is shear torture.
These are teens all in various stages of discovering who they are. John calmly accepts detention from the principal for being late, not even offering the fact that he was delayed while making sure that his drunk father (Timothy Bottoms, one of the few professional actors in the cast. The cast of teens were entirely amateurs) wouldn’t be driving home. Elias is a budding photographer whose first instinct in any situation is to take a picture. There’s Michelle, whose poor body image forces her to wear track pants instead of the required shorts for gym class and is reinforced by the cruel whispers of classmates made behind her back that she overhears. There’s the trio of bitchy girls who seem more concerned with an after-school shopping trip than they are with class work. But everyone’s life is about to be shattered when two students arrive with hand guns and automatic weapons and go on a shooting spree.
Elephant is filmmaking at its most powerful and provocative. Some may view this movie as the flip side to Michael Moore’s controversial Academy Award winning documentary Bowling For Columbine. But where Moore went looking for what may have caused such a tragedy to occur, Van Zant sketches a portrait of what is lost when such a tragedy does happen. The students in Elephant were all living normal lives filled with potential, hope, anguish, love, struggle and triumph. Like the Chinese proverb about the three blind men asked to describe an elephant while touching its trunk middle and tail from which the movie derives its name, Elephant delivers no clear cut answers. While the shooters are shown playing a violent video game, one also can adeptly play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on the piano. Did video games warp their minds or classical music? Or was it something else entirely?
It is the complete neutrality of the film that may bother some people. Many Hollywood films blatantly try to manipulate their audiences, giving us feel good moments and heartwarming endings. But with the specter of the school shootings at Columbine and other places still relatively fresh in our cultural consciousness, Elephant’s neutrality forces the viewer the confront the utter senselessness of such a tragedy and the arbitrary randomness with which it can strike.
Van Zant’s camera glides around the characters as they go about their school days as if the audience is a spectral voyeur, with most scenes lasting one continuous take. But for all their banality, a feeling of dread grows as various story threads intersect, allowing the audience to slowly piece together all the different pieces of the narrative puzzle, building to the moment where we first hear that unmistakable metal on metal clack of a gun being cocked.
When it does come, the violence of the film is shocking without being overly graphic. In many ways the violence at the end of the movie has more impact than the excessiveness of something like Tarantino’s Kill Bill or the stylized violence of Hong Kong directors like John Woo. There are no large slow motion splatterings of blood following the echoing boom of a gun. Filmed in the same detached manner as the rest of the film, these scenes pack a visceral and emotional wallop equal to any shotgun blast.
Elephant is the most affecting and powerful film of the year. I came away from it moved and shaken. This is a movie that will challenge you and very probably disturb you, but it is certainly the most important film to be released this year.