Elephant (2003)Rated R for disturbing violent content, language, brief sexuality and drug use - all involving teens.
Starring Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Jordan Taylor, Carrie Finklea, Nicole George, Brittany Mountain, Alicia Miles, Kristen Hicks.
LVJeff's Rating: 8/10
Photo ©Fine Line Features. All rights reserved.
Elephant shows that director Gus Van Sant was just warming up with Gerry, an improvisation-heavy movie about nothing in particular (two guys lost in a desert), laden with an air of nihilistic hopelessness. That same atmosphere, in which the viewer is invited simply to observe a scenario presented in a real-world style that ultimately feels other-worldly, pervades Elephant, which follows the disparate activities of several teenagers in a Portland, Oregon high school. But as the movie strolls to its conclusion...
Stop here for a minute. For some reason, the plot synopsis in this movie's production notes goes to great lengths to avoid mentioning a certain element in this film. Odd, because all the buzz about Elephant, fresh from its Palme d'Or win at the Cannes Film Festival, is generated by the particular element in question, so I can't imagine anyone who's heard of this movie not knowing what it's about. But I'll play nice and take the careful route. Therefore, if you don't know and don't want to know, please stop reading now, because it's impossible to say more here without bringing up that key element.
I'll assume the rest of you understand what I'm referring to. Continuing...
Elephant plays out pretty much the way you expect it to. Van Sant delivers a documentary-like portrayal of a normal high school day that ends in a mass school shooting. Every student (all portrayed by either non-actors or not-well-known actors) who appears for more than, oh, five minutes on camera gets introduced by a title card; the camera follows them as they walk through halls and interact with other people. The story doesn't play favorites -- it's not particularly about the path of one person or another, and we're not led to feel anything in particular for each of the characters (though, as human beings, we will inevitably feel stronger about certain people than others). In the end, the terror takes place, and we're just left watching.
Since such a structure begs for observations -- i.e., honest reactions more than manipulated emotions -- I'll present mine formally:
1) Elephant seems to be confronting the hopeful notion that such incidents can be prevented in any logical way. It's a bleak scenario, but the movie doesn't apologize for it. Each student we watch has different interests in the areas of work, art, sports, and socializing, and nothing in the film gives us a clue that any given kid has the internal potential to be a mass murderer. The two who eventually commit the crime don't have clear motivations -- one of them seems to have a stronger motivation than the other, but the woes he suffers at school are not, on the surface, uniquely his own. A conversation in the film, about whether or not one can spot a homosexual simply through appearance, hints at this idea. (Incidentally, Elephant gets its name partially from the story where several blind men each touch one part of an elephant -- a leg, the trunk, the tail, etc. -- and foolishly claim to be able to tell everything about the animal.)
2) The movie's theory concerning unpredictability is undermined by its own propagation of stereotypes about the kinds of kids who have carried out school shootings. The stronger of the two murderous students in the movie is clearly shown being picked on (even the contrasting socially-awkward library girl isn't specifically depicted as a victim of taunting). He has intelligence, but he's reclusive, ditching school to hang out at his home where his friend plays a violent video game on a laptop. Once again, this situation enforces the social hypothesis that well-adjusted kids would not be capable of such despicable behavior, and that, if we have to keep our eye on anyone, we should be looking at those kids who are socially marginalized. This belief is not new, and its illustration in Elephant only serves to weaken the presentation of the murders as an unpredictable event.
3) However, while watching the movie, one can easily come to the conclusion that it isn't trying to serve up any one theory. This is at once fascinating and uninteresting -- our worst fears are confirmed and put on a screen, but we are left with the same cold feeling of hopelessness one gets when reading such a story in the newspapers. Still, Elephant does show us how horrible the event actually is -- we are not separated by the shield of media, by colorless word-and-print; we actually get to know some of these teenagers, albeit to a small extent. And it makes our stomachs drop that much more when we see the brutal, unreal images of their lives being taken away. We are reminded how much attention the victims deserve when these events take place -- too often, the public's fascination sadly focuses on the perpetrators. Unfortunately, such raw depiction of violence also makes us wish we could be hopeful and find a way to prevent such acts, but Elephant offers us no solace.
This film emerges as a powerful hard-hitter. It forces viewers to experience a tragic event first-hand in order to fully realize the horror involved -- but the bleakness left behind serves little purpose and sheds little enlightenment.
©Jeffrey Chen, Sep. 18, 2003