Elephant (2003)

Elephant first published by Movie Gazette

Near the beginning of Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001), two lengthy single-take tracking shots follows Donnie and other pupils and teachers through the corridors and exteriors of his high school, and as the camera meanders about in a hallucinatory swirl, the nostalgic familiarity of institutionalised adolescence is made to seem all at once dreamily alienating and menacing. Much of the 81 minutes of Gus van Sant’s Elephant plays as an extended version of that scene, with long shots tracking individual pupils through a school’s corridors one ordinary morning, and although their different paths rarely (and barely) intersect, they are all about to be trampled by a violent, rampaging force.

After taking over the wheel from his alcoholic father, John (John Robinson) gets in trouble with the principal for being late to school. Acadia (Alicia Miles) comforts John before attending a gay-straight discussion class. Eli (Elias McConnell) shoots people at random with his camera to build up his portfolio. Football jock Nathan (Nathan Tyson) and his girlfriend Carrie (Carrie Finklea) discuss whether she is pregnant. Awkward, bespectacled Michelle (Kristen Hicks) flees the sports field for the library where she helps shelve books. Diet-obsessed Brittany (Brittany Mountain), Jordan (Jordan Taylor) and Nicole (Nicole George) discuss the conflicts between friendship and boyfriends before purging their lunch together in the toilets. Then, as John leaves school, Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen) arrive, and go on a killing spree with an assortment of firearms.

All the things targeted for blame by the media after the 1999 Columbine high school massacre – bad upbringing, video games, modern music, bullying, easy access to guns, or even homosexuality – make an appearance in Elephant, but are spread, scatter-gun style, throughout the intertwining storylines of the different teenagers featured in the film. It is good John who has the bad parent; and he has as much access to firearms as the killers. John and Eli discuss going to a rock concert, whereas Alex is, like his namesake in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), strictly a Beethoven fan. Alex is picked on at school, but so is Michelle. In a desperate attempt to experience a first kiss before embarking on a violent plan as deadly for themselves as for many others, Alex and Eric have a fumbling encounter in the shower, whereas the gay members of Acadia’s class are victims rather than homicidal killers. The murderous duo play violent video games, but few adolescent males do not. Even the pair’s viewing of a documentary on Hitler’s propaganda, instead of indicating that they are Nazis, is accompanied by a muffled conversation revealing that they are not sure who Hitler is.

In this way, van Sant subtly suggests that all these supposed ‘danger signs’, far from predicting and explaining the stampede of aberrant teen behaviour to come, are merely part of the noise and confusion of normal coming of age. Borrowing his title and conception from Alan Clarke’s 1989 teledrama depicting a series of Irish punishment killings without commentary or context, van Sant offers an uncluttered account of the problems of adolescence. While DP Harris Savides’ camera always ambles along behind his subjects, it never penetrates beneath their surfaces, preferring to keep a cool distance, occasionally eavesdropping on snatches of their dialogue (some of which was improvised by a brilliant cast of unknowns). This dispassionate approach continues in the final scenes of violence, which are banalised rather than sensationalised, focusing on the killers’ faces rather than deeds. Such detachment both matches the killers’ own blank disengagement, but also offers viewers a critical distance from events which invites thoughtful reflection rather than kneejerk reaction.

strap: An intelligent reflection on the Columbine massacre, preferring difficult questions to easy answers, with the sort of quiet subtlety that one would never expect from an elephant.

© Anton Bitel