Gus Van Sant is the go-to director for dramas about troubled
youth. From DRUGSTORE COWBOY through MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO
to GOOD WILL HUNTING, Van Sant's films capture a particular tenor
and spirit. That's perhaps why his latest offering, ELEPHANT, a
meditation on the randomness of violence in high schools that reached
a peak in the late 1990s and was best exemplified by the massacre at
Columbine High School in Colorado, was so eagerly anticipated. Indeed,
it emerged as the surprise winner at this year's lackluster Cannes Film
Funded by Home Box Office (HBO), the movie originally was to be
a collaboration with novelist JT LeRoy (who has since been unmasked as
a fraud). After completing GERRY, though, Van Sant opted to take a
more improvisational approach. Partly inspired by British director
Alan Clarke's short film of the same name that explored violence in
Northern Ireland, ELEPHANT has a dual meaning. The director also
utilized an ancient parable of three blind men who examine different
parts of the animal and describe a fan, a tree and a snake as a source,
and the title also finds its meaning in the cliché of the "elephant in
the living room," that is, something that is so obvious yet ignored.
The multiple meanings can be applied to the situation of violence in
schools: clearly there are numerous ways of looking at the problem
and there are those who chose to ignore the signs of impending
violence despite its obviousness.
Van Sant's point of view does not take sides; he merely presents
a day in the life of a high school in Oregon that ends with an eruption
of violence. There are no easy explanations for why it happened and
the baby-faced duo who perpetrate the shooting spree are not painted
in black and white. The loose structure of this relatively brief mood
piece, though, undercuts what is being examined. The film begins with
one student being driven to school by his inebriated father and then
picks up various other high schoolers and follows them through the
halls of this large campus. Along the way, the film folds back on
itself so the audience sometimes sees the same scene from different
perspectives. The jumbling time structure can sometimes be used to
good effect, but here it creates confusion, in part because the viewer
has no real vested interest in the characters. There's no sense of
heightened reality that is required in drama and while the young men
and women that are featured in the film are attractive, they lack
personality. What ends up on screen is seemingly endless shots of
people walking in hallways with Beethoven playing on the soundtrack.
Indeed, as the camera follows one young man -- a football player -- as
he navigates the schools labyrinth of halls, the thought came to mind
that this school must be as big as the Mall of America.
Van Sant is not beneath using trite shorthand for the students
either. A trio of self-involved young girls spend their lunch hour
discussing where to go shopping after school, then step into the
lavatory and purge themselves. There's even a token Black character
who is introduced only to become a victim. One of the teen killers
is shown being hit by spit balls in class and later vents his frustration
by playing "Für Elise." His comrade is later shown playing violent
video games. The pair also appear to have ordered their weapons over
the Internet (a gun arrives while they are watching a documentary on
Hitler.) To further stir the pot, Van Sant has the pair of shooters
exchange a kiss in the shower before they set off on their rampage.
Yet, no attempt is made to explain what triggered the shootings
and the film doesn't really end in a satisfactory manner.
Instead of inspiring discussions about the troubled youth of
America (something which THIRTEEN achieves), ELEPHANT leaves
one in a somnambulant state.
Running time: 81 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content, language,
brief sexuality and drug use - all
Viewed at Magno Review One
|© 2005 by C.E. Murphy. All Right Reserved.