Elephant (Fine Line), directed by Gus Van Sant, was inspired by the mass shootings at Columbine High School in April 1999: It’s an attempt to make sense of a senseless act, while at the same time being true to its senselessness—leaving the material unfinished, suggestive, and sermon-free. The movie is a bizarre hybrid: It’s not a drama, it’s not a documentary, it’s not a docudrama; it’s a sort of free-floating meditation on the tragedy, with a vérité touch and avant-garde mannerisms. It puts you right in the moment, in real time, with the victims and the killers; yet it also doubles back on itself, making temporal leaps and repeating its narrative from different perspectives. It’s a daring and original effort, yet so noncommittal—so purposely vague—that it’s apt to leave you flummoxed: at once stricken and etherized.
The film is a series of meandering takes, with the camera often stationed behind the heads of kids walking through or around their high school (not Columbine—the film was shot in Portland, Ore.): in the corridors, the cafeteria, the library. The same scenes are repeated through the eyes of different characters—not to suggest that each person’s reality is different, as in Rashomon (1950), but to intensify your empathy for kids who have no idea what’s coming.
We begin with John (John McFarland—almost all the film’s nonprofessional actors use their actual first names), a laid-back stoner type whose alcoholic dad weaves all over the road on the way to school in the movie’s opening. The father is played by Timothy Bottoms, lately known for his George W. Bush impersonations: Is he meant to evoke Bush—and to suggest that our ship of state has a senseless pilot? Or am I projecting my own politics on the movie? Is it my imagination that the long, rectangular openings in the concrete walls recall the slots for guns in many cavalry Westerns? Is Elephant intended as a giant Rorschach blot?
Our tendency to project things onto other people is one of the movie’s motifs: The next character we meet is a photographer, Elias (Elias McConnell), who spends a lot of time shooting—so to speak—his student subjects and scrutinizing his pictures in a darkroom. Van Sant stays with him for minutes at a time as he rotates his canisters and prints his captured images: Very evocative, but of what I’m not sure.
Then it’s on to an attractive couple, Nathan (Nathan Tyson) and Carrie (Carrie Finklea), then a trio of cute girls, Brittany (Brittany Mountain), Jordan (Jordan Taylor), and Nicole (Nicole George), who gossip, complain about their parents, and make their ritual excursion to the girls’ room to vomit up their lunch. Sometimes we’re with Michelle (Kristen Hicks), a plain, slightly overweight girl who won’t wear shorts in gym class—sadly alienated from her peers and her own body. We see a shot of her running to her job in the library—a spazzy run, arms pumping—from many different angles over the course of the movie; and we’re with her when we hear our first gun being cocked. Finally, we’re with Alex and Eric, the outcasts who show up at the school with giant duffel bags full of automatic weapons, ammunition, and explosives. Clouds scud by, first puffy, then black.
These mundane comings and goings have more weight because we know what’s coming: We watch with knots in our stomach and listen hard for the inevitable shots. The soundtrack is a hubbub, with echoes of voices and locker doors opening and closing. Sometimes there are heavily filtered water sounds or birdcalls, sometimes Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” At his home (in the only scenes that happen outside the school, and, confusingly, on a different day), one killer picks out “Für Elise” on the piano while the other plays a violent video game: Is video destroying our youth, or Beethoven? Or does it have more to do with the assault rifles that are cheerfully delivered by the mailman? The tracking shots through the school corridors have the feel of a video game, as did much of Van Sant’s Gerry (2002), while the classical music throughout suggests a higher order (and a beauty) in the universe—but it’s played, in the end, over a scene in which one of the killers corners Nathan and Carrie in a meat locker and decides which to shoot by saying, “Eenie-meenie-miney-mo.”
The violence when it comes is terrible—obscenely cruel in its randomness. It’s graphic, but not in the manner of a teen hack-’em-up; it’s like real-life atrocity footage. Elephant hurts you in ways you don’t see coming; its combination of the orchestrated and the raw gets past your defenses.
But to what end? After a run of studio movies, Van Sant has been trying to “simplify the apparatus” of filmmaking; for Elephant, he has cited as a model the seemingly real-time documentaries of Frederick Wiseman. But Wiseman’s subjects have holy moments of transparency and radiance, whereas the characters in Elephant are closed-down and inarticulate, mired in their own ordinariness. (The actors improvised their own dialogue, but Van Sant must have chosen to keep it flat.) Apart from the early moments with John and his dad, and the shots of Michelle regarding her own ungainly body in a locker room, these kids are meant to be totally unmemorable. One of the killers makes homosexual overtures to the other, but it isn’t clear if he’s really gay or just desperately needs some human contact. Van Sant might put his camera behind these kids’ heads, but emotionally he’s so detached—and his meanings are so opaque—that he might as well be shooting an ant farm.
Van Sant is trying to do a lot of contradictory—or dialectical—things, and my response was dialectical, too: I admired the hell out of his ambition and his determination to invent a new language for a new kind of horror; yet I at times I wanted throttle him for being so cool, so dissociated, such an aesthete. (Even the title of this movie is cryptic—which is ironic since it’s meant as a reference to the joke about the elephant in the room, that HUGE thing that everyone is insanely ignoring.) Elephant won the top prize at Cannes this year. Some critics have hailed it as a masterpiece, others regard it as an obscenity. I think it’s a tantalizing collage. You need to complete it in your head—but whether that movie bears any resemblance to the one Van Sant intended is anyone’s guess.