AN ORDINARY HIGH SCHOOL DAY. EXCEPT THAT IT’S NOT.
A few months ago I saw Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park (2007). Most Swedish critics seemed to love it, but I was thoroughly unimpressed; the grainy images of skaters doing their thing on their boards seemed particularly endless to me. I was bored. I had a feeling that Elephant would be an equally dull predecessor, but I was surprised to find that it isn’t really. The films undoubtedly share traits, but Van Sant doesn’t lose track of what he’s trying to accomplish. Where Paranoid Park bored you, Elephant fascinates.
The film begins just a short while before a massacre takes place at Watt High School in Portland, Oregon. We follow a group of students doing what they usually do every day at school. John (John Robinson) removes his drunk dad from behind the steering wheel of the family car and drives to school with dad in the passenger seat. Elias (Elias McConnell) is busy taking photographs of other students as part of a class assignment; he’s portrayed as a pretty popular kid. Michelle (Kristin Hicks) is a nerdy girl who helps out at the library; she’s used to taking crap from the other girls. Brittany (Brittany Mountain), Jordan (Jordan Taylor) and Nicole (Nicole George) are best friends, three superficial girls who do most things together, including throwing up lunch.
Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen) hang out together; the jocks keep bullying them, but they have a plan. They have just ordered assault weapons online and plan to kill as many people as possible at school, just to teach them a lesson.
All about atmosphere
Inspired by the 1999 Columbine massacre in Colorado, the film is also the middle chapter of Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy”. There isn’t much of a story; it’s all about atmosphere. We follow these teenagers around as they do mundane stuff, but it’s never really boring. We get constant clues of what will happen and the long takes kind of have a hypnotic effect. The point is not lost; these are normal, regular kids going about their business, having no idea what will take place. We also get different perspectives on some of the events of the day.
The director seems to have succeeded in capturing life at a high school like Columbine; the young amateur actors who play the kids are all quite convincing. Sometimes it’s like a dream; sedated is one word to describe the general feeling, the problems are there but no one pays attention to them… and then everybody wakes up the minute two heavily armed children appear in school. Van Sant has a way of making us feel that something bad is about to happen. Of course, the fact that two kids can order weapons like those in the film is also an interesting matter (thank you, NRA, for making sure people have the absolute right to lay their hands on whatever hideous weapon invented).
Some critics complained about a lack of insight; we get no explanations and are offered nothing new really. Well, some of the answers are already in the seemingly dull everyday routine of high school life. If students and teachers get better at spotting the elephants in the room, they take one step closer to avoid having their school turn into another Columbine.
Elephant 2003-U.S. 81 min. Color. Produced by Dany Wolf. Written and directed by Gus Van Sant. Cast: Alex Frost (Alex), Eric Deulen (Eric), John Robinson (John), Elias McConnell, Jordan Taylor, Carrie Finklea… Timothy Bottoms.
Trivia: Co-executive-produced by Diane Keaton.
Cannes: Palme d’Or, Best Director.
Last word: “Modern-day cinema takes the form of a sermon. You don’t get to think, you only get to receive information. This film is not a sermon. The point of the film is not being delivered to you from the voice of the film-maker. Hopefully, there are as many interpretations as there are viewers.” (Van Sant, The Guardian)