Gus Van Sant explores the mystery of high school shootings with the chilling and suspenseful film Elephant, which follows several students on what seems like a normal day. But, before the school bell rings, many of them will have been gunned down by two of their classmates.
Van Sant, whose other 2003 movie was simplistic yet moving Gerry (and whose past credits include Good Will Hunting), applies the same simplistic techniques to Elephant. Elephant, by all means, is a simple movie. Technically, the camera work is slow and methodical, sometimes following various characters around for minutes on end without breaking away. The movie does jump around chronologically, showing how different characters progressed through the day. One of the most powerful scenes of the movie is where one of the students, Alex (Alex Frost) is sitting at home, playing the piano. The scene is as simple as that, but it is clear that this is the calm before the storm, as Alex and his friend Eric are going to return to school and murder everyone they can find.
The slow, "rolling hills" style of Van Sant does become tedious at times. He does a very good job at making the movie suspenseful, because you are just waiting for that first shot to be fired, but very little happens for the first hour. That does not mean that the first hour is boring (or that the final twenty minutes are "exciting"), but there are a few stretches that seem a little ambiguous. Obviously, Van Sant is trying to show that all of the characters in the movie, aside from the two killers, are doing exactly what they do every day of their lives - process film, talk about boys, kiss their girlfriends, sit in class - but a few moments just do not work.
My other complaint is that this high school did not remind me of the high school that I went to in any way or form (and that was only four years ago). Most of the movie seems to take place during a lunch period, but having come from a school where students weren't just allowed to roam around as freely as the students are allowed to here, things seemed odd. Only one little group is shown in a class setting, and everything else seems a little surreal. Perhaps that is the point.
I also did not like the homosexual moment given to the killers before the shooting spree; I did not like my interpretation on what this was meant to indicate.
Elephant does succeed in shocking its audience. There is very little blood in the movie, and not too many people are actually showed being gunned down, but the implication is more than enough. As Alex and Eric (Eric Deulen) roam the hallways in search of future targets, their casual indifference to what they are doing is downright chilling. The final seconds of the film will make your hair stand on end. The final minutes are where Elephant finds its strength and power; it is hard to determine whether is good or is good only because it shocks and hits hard to home.
The actors should also be given credit, as most of them had never acted professionally before. All are more than believable.
Elephant is a chilling and shocking film that benefits from the mastery of Gus Van Sant and its actors - there are no people more fitting to play students than students themselves. While shocking, the movie seems to be more of an observation than a statement, and for that I did not find it as powerful as I wanted to be. For those who can handle such a film, it is still worth seeing.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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