Elephant, the latest film from eclectic director Gus Van Sant, is probably closer in spirit to his ill-advised remake of Psycho than any other film in his body of work, and that is not necessarily a criticism.
The grand winner of the esteemed Golden Palm at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, Elephant stirred up a hornet's nest worth of debate and controversy even before its premiere. The film is a striking tone-poem that examines a horrific event that scorched American public consciousness and generated an extensive dance-card worth of debate: the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. Elephant is neither a documentary nor an insipid, message-filled "Movie of the Week"; the school portrayed in the film is situated in Portland, Oregon, and the characters have names and personalities that differ from the real-life victims. In Van Sant's film, reality is refracted through artificiality, a technique which makes the film haunting, chillingly effective, and, while undeniably a potent, riveting work, ultimately pointless (more on that in a bit.)
Elephant is also notable as a continuation of Van Sant's return to his independent roots that began with the release of last year's ponderous but rewarding Gerry. After making a name for himself as one of the most gifted auteurs in American Independent Cinema with such films as Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant achieved mainstream Hollywood success with Finding Forrester, To Die For, and the multi-Oscar-winning (and $100+ million grossing) Good Will Hunting. Elephant , with its long takes, deliberate pacing, recursive and multi-layered chronological structure, and full-frame aspect ratio, radiates with the essence of independent cinema from Frame One. Van Sant is not interested in polemics: he provides no explanations for the massacre, nor does he delineate motivations or repercussions. There are no pontifications over such insipid talk-radio topics as gun control, violence in the media, permissive parenting, school prayer, or personal responsibility. The film begins and ends abruptly, without resolution, climax, or closure.
There are hints, symbols and allegories scattered throughout the film, of course. The opening scene features a parent driving his child to the school on the day of the massacre, intoxicated behind the wheel, swerving and side-swiping cars along the way. In one haunting scene, one of the teen killers is shown playing a beautiful rendition of Beethoven's Fur Elise on the piano while another is furiously pounding away at a laptop computer, gunning people down in a Doom -styled video game (upon completion of the piece, the teen then gives the piano the finger after slamming his hands down on the keyboard.) Cinematic nods are given towards topics like alienation, bullying, bulimia, proliferation of firearms, obsession, homosexuality, and rage, topics that comprise a mosaic of reasons that might have caused something like Columbine to occur.
So why is Elephant so similar in spirit to the Psycho remake? In essence, the film is little more than a recreation of a horrific event burned into the public psyche, much as a shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock is both completely familiar yet viewed through a new set of eyes. We know what's going to happen, yet we examine it through a different lens.
In structure, the entire film is a middle-act, lacking introduction, climax, or epilogue. In many ways, Elephant exists without reason in and of itself; without public knowledge of the events of April 20, 1999, the film lacks context. Characters are introduced, with varying levels of depth into their personalities, but they are ultimately set up as dominoes to be knocked down later. To a modern audience, Elephant is both intimately familiar and horribly distant. As Van Sant maneuvers characters like chess pieces into such areas as the cafeteria or the library, we as the audience know that these settings will be the prime locations of the massacre. When one of the characters walks outside as the two killers walk into the frame garbed in fatigues and clutching duffel bags, we know exactly what is about to transpire. Four years later, these events are still fresh in our minds and fiercely debated. But without this level of context and awareness, the film lacks self-sufficiency.
And while this seems like a minor nit-pick, the film loses points for engaging in the overused cinematic cliché of having one of the killers move the barrel of his rifle between two potential victims while reciting the "Eenie Meenie Meinie Moe" chant. It was groan-inducing before, and it hasn't changed over time.
That having been said, there is so much to admire in Elephant that one might almost forget such criticisms. Van Sant's direction is tight, focused and chilling. The fractured timeline shows events from different angles and contexts, allowing scenes that seem throwaway in nature at first to be given far more resonance as the film progresses. Performances across the board are phenomenal; the "teen actors" throughout the movie appear far more like "teens" rather than "actors". Each uses their real first name as the name of their character, giving the movie an air of validity in a film that seems lost in abstraction. There has been much talk about the explicit homosexuality shared between the teen killers, or of the "off screen" violence that occurs. Rumors and debate have circulated over the relationship between the two real-life killers vis-à-vis whether or not they were lovers, but in the film it is shown to be true. As far as the "off screen" violence: forget it. While some of the violence is implied, most of the shootings are explicitly depicted in bloody detail. The film eschews cheap and gratuitous gore and exploitation in favor of presenting the horror in a chilling, methodical and realistic manner.
Elephant is presented in two aspect ratios: it's original full-frame theatrical aspect ratio, and a cropped 16x9 anamorphic transfer for your widescreen-viewing pleasure. Now it's time for your humble reviewer to name-drop; I first saw Elephant last July at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, and Gus van Sant came out to introduce the film. This was one of the first screenings of the film after Cannes, and it took place in the largest theater with a packed audience. Even then, it was projected and exhibited full-frame. The film was originally produced for HBO, and only later was it submitted for competition at Cannes. There might be a few voices decrying the full-frame transfer as "pan-and-scan" or "not what the director intended." Bullcrap. I'm a fierce supporter for OAR in all its potential forms, and the 1.33:1 transfer is indeed the Original Aspect Ratio. Really.
Now before you think I'm completely full of myself (it might be a little late for that), let's get back to the video. The transfer is, for the most part, pretty strong. Color levels are vibrant and sufficiently rich, with excellent chromatic spread, deep blacks, and sharp brights. Other scenes display a more pallid, muted tone, and these scenes are well rendered. Contrasts are spot-on throughout, especially as the film switches between warmer, more natural levels and harsher, more highly-contrasted scenes. If anything, some of the contrasts might be a tad excessive; there is some noticeable edge-enhancement and haloing throughout the film. This is nothing too excessive, but it is present. Sharpness levels vary from extremely impressive (with some impressive image detail) to the slightly soft, but the overall quality is extremely positive. Grain structure is apparent in many of the darker scenes, retaining the original film-like appearance. Overall, a winning and enjoyable transfer marred by some edge-enhancement and a little bit of softness.
The audio is presented both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. A 2.0 channel is also included, as well as mono presentations of the film in both French and Spanish. The DTS and DD mixes are fairly similar, with some volume enhancements noticeable in the DTS track. The DTS also has a slightly more expansive soundfield, thus giving it a slight edge over the DD mix. However, both are pretty engaging throughout. Elephant is a quite film, given to bouts of explosive punctuation, and these diverse elements are solidly delivered. Dialog levels are bright and display fine clarity. Surrounds are used aggressively and immersively, sinking the viewer directly into the din of your average high school corridor. You are literally surrounded by echoes, conversations, laughter, and distant audio cues that often tie into scenes that occur later (or earlier) in the film. The soundtrack displays fine fidelity and dynamic range, with punching use of LFE and directional effects. This is an impressive audio delivery.
The only extra of note is a featurette entitled On the set of the film "elephant": rolling through time. This thirteen-minute documentary features some behind-the-scenes footage filmed on the set, interviewing many of the young actors who lent their talents in the creation of Elephant. Director van Sant is also heavily featured. While he doesn't provide much in terms of interview or commentary, we do see a lot of him setting up shots and providing instruction to his cast and crew. As an aside, I noticed that, for such a somber and serious-minded film, there was a lot of horseplay going on and around the set. Kids will be kids, I suppose. Honestly, what was I expecting? Hundreds of kids sitting around listening to Rufus Wainwright and reading the poetry of Adrienne Rich? Sheesh. Anyway, there's not a lot of meat to this documentary, but it makes for a decent if not entirely memorable addition.
Also included is the film's theatrical trailer and a promotional video for HBO Films .
So why is the film called Elephant? It might have to do with the joke about how every body part seems like that of an elephant to a blind man. Or it could be related to the proverb of the elephant in the living room that everyone tries to ignore. The blind and the ignorant -- is that America before Columbine? Afterwards? Gus Van Sant doesn't answer the question, nor does he try to. Elephant is a song, a poem, a lyrical representation of history that encapsulates without annotation. Van Sant's gripping if frustrating film is a chilling and haunting examination that suffers because of its umbilical dependency and link to the collective nightmares of contemporary American popular culture. While flawed, Elephant is a compelling film that acts as a powerful, rousing chorus to a song that demands the audience to provide opening and closing verses, a lyrical bridge without origin or destination.
While the disc is somewhat light on extras, the presentation of the film is top-notch. So if you're looking for impressive video and audio, you'll definitely find it here. The film is undeniably powerful, if still inherently flawed. Yet throughout the entire proceedings I could not take my eyes off of Elephant , and the DVD definitely merits a strong recommendation.