(Originally posted on 12/15/03)
Following on the heels of his existential wilderness tour Gerry, Gus Van Sant's Elephant brings us inside an anonymous Middle America high school in the morning hours before a Columbine-esque massacre. The result is an hour and a half tease in which the audience is asked to dutifully wait for the violent, clinically detached pay-off. Van Sant, working with cinematographer Harris Savides, continues the stylistic tropes introduced in Gerry -- languid, extended takes that follow characters from behind; shots of clouds forming ominously in the sky; 360-degree camera pans around actors; minimal dialogue and a sense that the actors aren't playing characters but placards -- but here, he actually has something of a story to tell. Van Sant presents many scenes of the kids wandering throughout the school from multiple perspectives in order to express the interconnected social milieu they inhabit. In its clear-eyed representation of the personal dramas that consume high schoolers' lives -- being unpopular, peer pressure, planning an evening's get-together -- Elephant successfully accomplishes what seems to be its primary goal: namely, to place the audience in a particular "space" by focusing on the tone, texture, and minute, ordinary details of an environment.
Each character is introduced with an intertitle providing his or her name, but the device is almost laughable because the kids -- whether they're arrogant jocks, superficial rich girls, or unattractive, insecure nerds -- are bland ciphers representing standard-issue types. The film implicates popularity cliques, videogames, and Nazi films as possible reasons for the killers' homicidal tendencies, although Van Sant's real target appears to be the community's parents, who are either drunk, unloving, or altogether absent. Yet these numerous theories, while reasonable in the abstract, come across as somewhat facile attempts to rationalize the myriad influences that might drive people to commit such heinous acts. Before embarking to school, the two killers share a kiss in a shower stall in an attempt to find some small measure of human love -- right before they embrace, one of them admits, "I've never kissed anyone" -- a scene that unnecessarily and wrongheadedly implies that the boys' apparent homosexuality played a role in their crimes. More troublesome, however, is the film's structure itself. By showing us the killers entering the school early on, only to repeatedly delay the actual rampage (which is ultimately shot with creepy indifference), the film ultimately becomes a morally dubious waiting game in which we're introduced to lots of kids we know are about to be slaughtered.