Winner of both the coveted Palm D'or and the Best Director award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival this spring, Elephant has been drumming up controversy ever since. Critics have accused Van Sant of taking an irresponsible stance on school shootings by neither explaining nor condemning the actions of the killers in Elephant. I find these critics to be wrong on both counts. For one thing, I don't need a film to tell me that kids shooting other kids isn't right. Moreover, even if Van Sant had chosen to put the blame on someone (parents, the gun industry, video games) he would be in almost exactly the same situation. So good for Gus for choosing to make a film that inspires open dialogue instead of self-serving debate.
Elephant suggests a few influences on the killers' behavior. The boys play a Doom-esque video game, watch a film about Hitler and there is a brief scene where the boys share a shower which suggests repressed homosexuality. But the screen time spent getting to know the shooters is only a fraction of the film's overall running time. As the film's tagline describes, "It's an ordinary day at high school. Except that it's not."
Shot entirely on location at Whitaker Middle School in Portland, Oregon with a cast of local actors, Elephant is eerily authentic. Without modern music or references to pop culture, the viewer is immediately deposited back into adolescence. You'll even start to "recognize" some of the characters: John is the nice kid with the rough family life, Eli is the photography guy, Michelle is the nerd from P.E. class who runs kinda funny, and there's those three annoying girls who are completely inseparable. The kids are neither likeable, nor unlikable and are fairly one-dimensional.
For the first two-thirds of the film, the camera does nothing but follow a handful of students during their school day. To keep things interesting, Van Sant does not adhere to a strict timeline. He will follow one character for several minutes and then switch to another. It is not until the second character encounters the first character and some dialogue is repeated that the audience realizes they have gone back in time. Even though these scenes are essentially about nothing, you know what's coming (the elephant in the room). There is a finely drawn line of tension throughout the film and you can't help but analyze the details of even the most minute scene.
At some point during the first reel, Van Sant plants his camera on a football field. What's interesting is, you only see half the field. Players move in and out of the screen, running plays, but you never know what happens because you're only seeing part of the action. The scene is clearly a metaphor, but it's up to the viewer to decode.
These camera-as-fly-on-the-wall moments are complemented by very deliberate and very lengthy tracking shots. The students are both explorers and guides in their strange and finite world.
Aside from the camerawork, the music is integral to the film. Van Sant makes prominent use of Beethoven's Fur Elise and Moonlight Sonata and I was unsure whether this was meant to be a tribute to the young men in A Clockwork Orange (by Van Sant's favorite director Stanley Kubrick). Regardless, the familiar and eerie tinkling of the piano creates a mood that is both peaceful and maddening.
The shooting sequence itself was neither gorey, nor shocking. It was disturbing, but not as sad as one might expect perhaps because Van Sant never reveals his character's long-term goals, hopes, or dreams. We follow the characters, but we don't know the characters.
In a strange way, Elephant manages to be more of an exercise in dramatic tension and creative camera work than a political statement. Elephant does not provide the viewer with any answers to the problem of teen violence, nor should it. To blame one particular group is to shirk responsibility and unjustifiably relieve society of its collective burden on this important issue.
-Megan A. Denny