Elephant is a strange and uncomfortable movie, one that as of right now I'm not sure that I like. However, I am absolutely certain that I respect it. In this day and age of Traffics and Erin Brockivichs, Elephant is an entirely different beast. In a time when we like our social drama's tidy, with easily identifiable problems and solutions, cause and effect, action and reaction, Elephant is a strong enough movie not to play into that hand. Putting us almost in the place of a security camera at Columbine, we look down on a shadow play of horror, not quite able to understand what it means, but overwhelmed by the grim truth of it all. Elephant isn’t perfect and in fact suffers from some massive flaws, but it’s a daring and perverse little thing, a social drama that at its center has only questions and not an answer to be seen.
Elephant is a "Day in the life movie", the only difference being that on this day a school shooting takes place. The film uses actual high schoolers in place of actors and is shot on digital video. If you were to show this movie to an unsuspecting viewer while omitting scenes of violence they might think it was a simple documentary with a few seemingly staged moments of teenage angst. Those moments come back to haunt Elephant in a big way, ringing false in the face of bare knuckled truth. To be quite frank, if you were to transfer some of these scenes to 35mm, particularly those centered on bulimic dream girls, you might mistake them for the "weepy" part of a John Hughes film. Now I could accept these sorts of scenes if they were just pushed as teen melodrama, but for some reason or another Van Sant decided to play some of these as surrealist humor. He even uses a choreographed bulimic bathroom puke, which inspired gales of laughter from the crowd I sat in. Was this intentional? I don't know. I do know that it fails miserably, and I also know that in this very same movie he uses dark humor in a much smarter and scarier way then this bit of fish in a barrel. There are other things that grated upon me in the same way, all character related. The film has the nasty habit of reducing its players to caricatures in order to shine focus on a broader subject. These bits are dead weight and tie the movie down. What could have been a great movie becomes merely a good one, and more importantly, what could have been a "need to see" film ala Requiem For a Dream , morphs into one that can be dismissed. The effect is infuriating.
However it is only infuriating because of how well the rest of this movie works. There is a particular scene involving paper balls and a doodle, the Elephant of Van Sant’s title. It’s the kind of absent minded teasing you see every day at a high school, but through Van Sant's lens it is outrageously chilling. For every caricature that falls flat there's a character that has sprung to life. For example, take Elias the obsessive outsider who tries to catch snips of hope with his camera, or Michelle a girl so shy that preparing for gym class becomes a nearly insurmountable ordeal. Or there are the performances of Alex Frost and Eric Deulen, who play the two killers. Surprisingly, they are able to conjure up sympathy for characters who would seem to deserve none. Van Sant deserves credit here too, able to identify with an outsider’s pain.
Elephant’s greatest scene, and the one that this film will most be remembered for, is the one that finally takes us to the killers’ home. The sneer on Van Sant's face is practically tangible as he takes the beleaguered viewer through a check list that a weaker film might beg to cling to. Internet? Check. Easy guns? Check. Violent videogames? Check. Nazism? Check. Repressed sexuality? Check. Absent parents? Check. Hell even some Clockwork Orange makes it in there. It’s almost like Van Sant has gone through each of these things and is now saying ”OK, now that that’s out of the way lets REALLY examine why” and thus lands us straight in the middle of a self made apocalypse.
Van Sant has not made the ultimate film on high school violence. That's The River's Edge a film which I cannot implore you enough to see. That movie has all of this film’s strengths and none of its weaknesses. It even has some amazing performances by Keanu Reeves (Yes you read right) Crispin Glover, and Dennis Hopper. That movie is a harrowing film and weirdly enough, one that time has apparently caught up to. See it now. That said, what Van Sant has done is construct a very good film with a nasty tendency to plod when ought to soar. Ultimately, he accomplished what he set out to do. Van Sant has constructed a huge elephant in the middle of the room and instead of patting us on the head and reassuringly telling us what to do about it, he's simply left and forced us to deal with it.