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Elephant (2003)

  Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Written by: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Eric Deulen, Carrie Finklea, Alex Frost, Nicole George, Kristen Hicks, Matt Malloy, Elias McConnell, Brittany Mountain, John Robinson, Jordan Taylor, Nathan Tyson
Links: Elephant on the IMDb, Official site, Buy on DVD
Genre: Drama

This movie gets: 7.33 (3 ratings)
nofreelist.com Ranking: Ranked equal 95th of 187 movies (2 ratings minimum; see full chart)

"Anti-Hollywood at its best: for pensive viewers only" - a review by freddy

Now here's a film that's near impossible to agree on with anyone. Some people love it, some hate it, and few seem to be in between. If nothing else, it provokes emotions effectively.

Take my friend that I saw the film with. His immediate reaction upon seeing the credits roll was, ‘Can I have my $14.50 back now?’ His fairly vitriolic critique of the film continued all the way back to the car, finishing with, ‘I should've stayed home and watched CSI.’ While that was a fair point from an entertainment perspective, there's no doubt in my mind that Elephant makes you think, and it's worth seeing. If nothing else, it makes a good change from standard Hollywood fare.

Elephant is writer-director Gus Van Sant's dramatisation of the infamous Columbine High School shooting a couple of years ago in the USA. The film is set in the city of Portland and has fictional names for its characters — which can only be to avoid lawsuits — but otherwise, it is documentary-like. It plays out what we already knew about Columbine and tells us a lot more in between. How much is based on police and witness reports and how much was dreamt up by Van Sant is fairly academic — the point of the film is to make the audience empathise with the characters.

That means, in my interpretation at least, empathising not only with the victims, who get most of the airplay, but also with the two young gunmen who kill students, teachers and themselves. In many ways, the killers are just like the kids they kill — they have their own hobbies, their own circle of friends, they get bullied. To them, mass murder just seems like the thing to do.

There's been plenty of discussion about Elephant's style. It contains a lot of looong shots tracking behind characters as they walk around the school or go about their daily routines. To some people, such as my companion, this is ‘like pulling teeth’ (his quote). And there's no doubt that the mind tends to wander at these moments. But for me, the whole idea behind these shots — and the film — is to show that the victims of the shooting were just normal people leading normal, mundane, lives. And that is far more compelling than the 5-second grab most people would have seen about them on CNN.

If you enjoy lively discussion about film, check out Elephant with some opinionated friends. You'll be debating for days. Discussion topic number one: the meaning of the title. Let me know your take.

freddy gives this movie 7 out of 10.
Review created on Thu 17 Jun 2004

"Where's my elephant? Where's my elephant?" - a review by pearly

Hey, I like arthouse movies as much as the next guy. Maybe even more, though I'm not willing to bet the farm on it. Elephant is arthouse, moreso than most (all?) of director Gus Van Sant's previous work. Which is weird, because, let's face it, the guy has an arthouse director name. Gus Van Sant? Come on! The man was born to make films just like Elephant, and he had to wade his way through My Own Private Idaho (1991), Good Will Hunting (1997), and others, before finally coming to a place he could truly call home.

The first real hint of this arthousedness is the fact that almost all of the characters in the film have the same first name as the actors who play them. But from the opening frames, the easy pace with which the film moves lulls you into the realisation that it's not going to be go go go blockbuster - far from it.

The first three quarters of Elephant looks like it was made with the measliest of budgets you've ever seen. The costs would have increased for the final quarter, but it's still pretty simplistic film-making. Two or so locations, steadycam (or not so steady in some cases) shots following actors around, simple plot without the need for hard-to-get props, and so on.

In Elephant, we meet many high school students, and see a brief glimpse into one day of their everyday lives. There's the boy who has to drive himself to school because his father is drunk again, the studious girl who refuses to wear appropriate clothes to her sports classes, the budding photographer who snaps everything he sees, and others. The story of their lives is opened on a particular page, and that's where we land, right there in the middle. Van Sant is definitely setting the scene by not offering any back story, but merely giving his audience the day's events as our only familiarisation. This is a day, just like any other day, in these people's lives.

And, for the first half of the film, it is a very normal day. There are casual conversations between friends, and discussion topics in class. There's lots of drawn-out shots of actors walking through corridors or across sports grounds to get to their classes. And everything moves so slowly as to actually feel as though it's in real time (and, considering the repetitious sections, even slower than real time). It's almost as if Van Sant, who not only directed the film, but also edited it, knew how expensive his film stock was, and didn't want to waste a single frame that he'd shot. Some of these shots progress the story no further and just seem to go on and on and on. At some point, I started to think that there wasn't even a story, I was just going to watch some guy walking across grass for the next hour. Yes, Elephant is certainly only a film for the kind of person who likes films like this.

What I got from Elephant was a sense of displacement, of being dumped into a situation headfirst, and then, just as I was beginning to wonder about the things going on in these ordinary lives (Why won't she wear shorts? Are those two going out, or just friends? etc.), I realised that I would never know the answer. In just the same way that an unanswered question dies along with the death of the only person who could possibly have answered that question, this seems to be the point of Elephant. It takes its sweet time to make this point.

And although jud insists that there was an elephant in there somewhere, I certainly didn't see one.

pearly gives this movie 6 out of 10.
Review created on Thu 10 Jun 2004

"Manifestation of brilliant elusive filmmaking" - a review by em_fiction

For me, Gus Van Sant was a name that never used to stand out. Hell, I even used to confuse him with Jan de Bont, which I now understand is a fucking heinous insult. Elephant, unquestionably Van Sant's boldest work to date, is a chilling film dealing with a subject matter that will inevitably spark controversy. As far as I'm concerned, this film, along with Good Will Hunting (1997), puts Van Sant straight down as one my favourite filmmakers ever.

Elephant is a non-linear story about the events that take place in a day at an American high school. This seemingly "ordinary" day unfolds from various perspectives:

John (John Robinson)
Upon arrival at school, John leaves the car keys in the front office where his notified brother will come to pick them up and drive his drunk, disorderly dad (Timothy Bottoms) home. He gets a detention from the principal (Matt Malloy) for being late.

Elias (Elias McConnell)
Being a photography enthusiast, Elias' day begins strolling through a park where he convinces a couple to let him take a few photos.
He makes a visit to the darkroom at school, and develops the negatives and prints.

Nathan & Carrie (Nathan Tyson & Carrie Finklea)
After football practice, Nathan walks the school to seek out his girlfriend, Carrie.
They sign out at the front office and take off for lunch.

Michelle (Kristen Hicks)
Michelle is the resident "uncool" character. Her day begins as she gets hassled by a teacher for wearing pants instead of shorts.
She moves off to her locker where she changes out of her hood, and then rushes to the library to stack books.

Brittany, Jordan & Nicole (Brittany Mountain, Jordan Taylor & Nicole George)
These three hussies start their day off in the corridor, where they gossip, and then eventually move off to eat in the cafeteria where they make plans to go shopping. Jordan also starts to question Nicole's loyalty (or lack thereof) to the group.

Eric & Alex (Eric Deulen & Alex Frost)
Alex, a bullied student, arrives at school with his best friend, Eric. They have disruptive plans of their own.

There is something about the elusiveness of Elephant that just makes it so powerful. It offers no insight, no explanation, no characterisation; no depth whatsoever, yet in this day, this seemingly ordinary, banal day, the horrific truth about society's volatility is accentuated to a degree of crystal clearness.

Normally, a lack of the above things would be the main cause of a bad film, but Elephant is a distinct exception. The main accusation against this film is that it is pointless. But what is "pointless"? What does it take to constitute a "pointless" film? Moreover, why does it need a point, or an explanation, in order to convey a message and ultimately, demonstrate merit? If this film was pointless, it'd have no point, but the fact is that it does have a point — it just so happens that the point is in fact the pointlessness; the pointlessness of these atrosities, the pointlessness of school shootings, mass murders, and other equally heinous crimes.

We don't need to delve deep into the characters in order to understand the unexpected nature of the violence, just like we don't need to delve into the psyches of Dylan Klebold or Eric Harris in order to understand that the unexplainable tragic event, that is the Columbine massacre, was wrong (Bowling for Columbine (2002) gives incredible insight on this tragedy). All Van Sant offers us is the outer layer of the day; each "ordinary" student doing what's expected of them, taking routine paths around the complex hallways; all of them generating this familiar, habitual behaviour, but then suddenly, two individuals spontaneously decide to deviate from their modus operandi, only to inflict tragic results.

Be warned: this film is not for the impatient viewer. Van Sant builds the film up with prolonged, unedited, tracking sequences of characters walking up and down hallways, crossing the paths of others, even occasionally spouting brief overhearings of other conversations as they walk pass. The aim is basically to stick us into the shoes of these students as they follow their routine, walking through the corridors heading for the darkroom, or the cafeteria; the library or the gymnasium.

Dialogue is very limited while actions are heavily emphasised. Habitual things we normally take for granted are rendered thoroughly, usually within a single cut, again just simply to reinforce that commonplace feeling of an "ordinary" day. The uniquely equanimous, tranquil photography, consisting of rich, vivid colours in every frame, is done superbly. The film is mostly mute besides the usual atmospheric sounds, but there is one distinct use of soundtrack. Bagatelle No.25 in A- 'Fur Elïse,' WoO.59 (or Fur Elïse) and Sonata No.14 in C#-, Op.27 No.2 'Moonlight' (or Moonlight Sonata), two of Ludwig van Beethoven's most well-known, beloved, beautiful, poetic compositions, are played by one of the characters in a short sequence that both defines and enhances the depressing mood of the film.

"People were part of the process of creating their characters.
Most of the kids are playing, very loosely, roles they would in real life."

      — Gus Van Sant

Most of the actors weren't in fact actors — they were genuine kids. All of them, considering that they have no acting experience, give solid performances, except for one person who made it pretty blatantly obvious that s/he had no acting skills whatsoever (I won't taint your expectations by revealing who they are, but I have an inkling you'll be able to work it out). Fortunately, bad acting isn't really something that severely tarnishes this film.

There's also one other thing that's definitely bound to have come across your mind at one stage or another: why "Elephant"? I was never any good at determining the significance of titles, but Van Sant offers his own explanation on the official site.

I know I'm a sucker for non-linear films, but this film, whether you like it or not, isn't going to be a forgettable one. Elephant is a bold, haunting examination of volatile human behaviour.

em_fiction gives this movie 9 out of 10.
Review created on Sun 28 Mar 2004

Movie review statistics

Number of reviews: 3
Average rating: 7.33
Lowest rating: 6 (by pearly)
Highest rating: 9 (by em_fiction)
 
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Reader comments

  1. Sadly I bought this movie expecting a brillant work of art instead i got back the boringness of school, and i was deeply offended. van sant made the killers homosexual, they made out naked together thats not a fact at all, the real killers liked chicks and had girlfriends, van sant is a dissappointment to the world and a discrase to his fans and family.. you suck van sant i hate you..

    Rating given: 1

    A comment from Brian Woods on Wed 05 May 2004 12:09 #

  2. Brian Woods is right. I let down everyone. I do suck and everyone should hate me.. please forgive me i will never forgive myself.

    Rating given: 1

    A comment from Gus Van Sant on Wed 05 May 2004 12:34 #

  3. The film was shithouse...

    Rating given: 1

    A comment from Ray on Fri 24 Dec 2004 14:03 #

  4. wow what a movie! i <3 it.

    Rating given: 10

    A comment from Desiree* on Mon 10 Oct 2005 05:12 #

Those who have commented give this movie: 3.25 (4 ratings)

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