Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” is clearly the best of the recent slew of Columbine-related independent films. The film is taut, audacious and wrenching. More importantly, “Elephant” unflinchingly examines today’s high school environment without falling prey to the didacticism that ensnared its peers.
The film follows 12 high school students in an Oregon high school on the day that two gunmen walk into their school and open fire. The young actors, all newcomers, are extraordinarily convincing. The dialogue has a natural awkwardness, unlike the witty, smooth conversations typical of Hollywood teen movies. Dialogue is minimal and seems incidental rather than overly calculated to illuminate the characters or move the plot along. Rather, we are allowed simply to be with the characters and garner what we can from their facial expressions, actions and surroundings. The effect is an authenticity that is eerie.
Van Sant’s treatment of the two young gunmen, Alex and Eric (Alex Frost, Eric Deulen), is refreshing. Peer ostracism, a negligent home environment, violence in video games, the hunting culture, the easy accessibility of guns, neo-Nazism and even homophobia are all alluded to as the causes of their eventual outlash, but Van Sant is unwilling to settle on them as definitive explanations. Rather, he confines himself to the realm of suggestion.
He also challenges much of the conventional reasoning touted by the media after Columbine. All of the characters suffer from the cruelty of high school and adolescence. John (John Robinson) has to take care of a drunken father and deal with a callous principal. Nicole, Brittany and Jordan (Nicole George, Brittany Mountain, Jordan Taylor) have destructive body image problems. Van Sant’s formidable eye for satire shows in their conversations, managing to be both hilarious and frighteningly familiar. Carrie (Carrie Finklea) faces the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy. Michelle (Kristen Hicks) lives with the stigma of being the “weird girl.” And yet, for reasons Van Sant encourages us to ponder, it is Alex and Eric, rather than any of the others, who channel their angst into shooting.
The organic feel of the film is augmented by the masterfully unpolished cinematography of Harris Savides (“Finding Forrester,” “The Yards”). For a large part of the film, the camera is content to passively follow the actors as they walk through the halls, giving us long, shaky shots of the backs of their heads. Savides also does solid work with perspective. His shots of characters amid crowds, as well as his tendency to blur light and background give the audience a sense of being lost in the shuffle.
The soundwork is also to be commended, as it takes a hands-off approach to the film. With the exception of occasional haunting strains of piano, the film’s sole soundtrack is the ambient noise of the high school. We hear breathing, distant conversations and footsteps. The result is a roughness that complements the cinematography perfectly.
The film loses a little of its power towards the end. Its refusal to portray real fear in the students during the shooting, while purposely satirical, makes it unconvincing. When Alex discovers two of his classmates hiding in a meat locker and threatens to shoot them, their pleas are flat and almost devoid of fear.
Nevertheless, this is a film with moments of sudden, intense brilliance. When Alex, dressed in fatigues and armed to the teeth, walks through the smoking, emptied hallways of his school, light streams through wide windows and birdsongs assault the audience’s ears.
Van Sant recognizes that the subject matter of “Elephant” has the most impact with minimal interference. Unburdened by slick camera work or an obtrusive soundtrack, it is allowed to breathe. His penchant for playing with chronology also allows the audience to see all sides of a situation while livening the pace of the narrative. He has created a film that is tentative in its conclusions, believable in its roughness and utterly unpretentious. The result is a direct blow to the solar plexus that will leave audience members still and silent in their seats after the last shot rings out.