USA 2003 : Gus VAN SANT : 81 mins
Elephant has polarised opinions since it premiered at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, where the jury unexpectedly awarded it the Palme dOr and Varietys chief reviewer Todd McCarthy slammed it as pointless at best and irresponsible at worst. Such extreme reactions are inevitable to such an extreme treatment of such an extreme subject: the April 1999 massacre at Ohios Columbine High School, when two pupils armed with assault weapons killed 13 and wounded 21.
Van Sant has been accused of either avoiding proper exploration of the killings causes, or of providing over-simplistic explanations: the bullied, maybe-gay killers (dweeby Alex Frost, pointedly Eminem-ish Eric Deulen) watch a TV documentary on Nazism; play a shoot-em-up computer-game (based, amusingly, on Van Sants own Gerry); order weapons from the internet with alarming ease; are ignored by their parents. The film has also been savagely criticised for being wholly dedicated to the creation of blissful innocents, whose impending slaughter we await with mounting dread.
These views aren’t right or wrong: like any real work of art, Elephant is sufficiently rich that it lays itself open to all kinds of subjective analysis, reaction and interpretation (which Van Sant constantly and knowingly invites). Although Columbine is clearly the starting point, it seems that a much wider malaise in American (and perhaps even human) society is being diagnosed and illustrated over the course of these 81 tantalising minutes. Its pretty clear that, even before Alex and Erics murderous spree, the school is already riddled with dysfunction, from the trio of bulimic teen queens throwing up in the toilets, to the hyper-sensitive Michelle (Kristen Hicks), who has body issues of a different kind..
The casting of Timothy Bottoms one of only two professional actors in an ensemble otherwise comprised of real-life high-school students (who improvised most of the script) as a drink-driving dad would seem, meanwhile, to point an oblique but damning finger at the present occupant of the White House. Bottoms, virtually unrecognisable from the fresh-faced youth of The Last Picture Show, is now best known for playing (one-time drink-driver) George W Bush on the short-lived satirical TV show Thats My Bush. Or is this casting-coup just one more coy provocation from the evasive Van Sant?
Regardless of its deeper meaning(s) (or lack of), the films technique is radical, innovative and breathtaking. Cinematographer Harris Savides (who also shot The Game) crafts audaciously long Steadicam shots which follow students around a school building that’s already been widely compared with Kubricks Overlook Hotel from The Shining, brilliantly complemented by Leslie Shatzs haunting sound design. Nimbly gliding back and forth across the time-frame over a single day and only occasionally bogging down into Gerry-esque gratuitous longueurs – the film patiently builds an hour of Altmanesque, quotidian/hallucinatory intensity… which then suddenly kicks into a remorselessly linear, blood-spattered nightmare as the killings begin.
The results are compelling, challenging, thought-provoking, beautiful, repellent, transcendent, shattering… Admire it or despise it, but after Elephant everything else youll see on a cinema screen this year may seem very flimsy stuff indeed.
23rd February, 2004
(seen 22nd February : Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. First seen 16th February, same place)
For other films rated 9/10 and 10/10 check out our Hall of Fame.
by Neil Young