HBO // 2003 // 80 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // August 2nd, 2004
An ordinary high school day. Except that it's not.
"Yearbooks with their autographs
From friends you might have had
These are your important years
You'd better make them last
Falling in and out of love just like...
These are your important years, your life."
-- Bob Mould
Violence is never easily explained. Even in times of war, when national security mandates some manner of brutal response, the images of casualties and collateral damage make for difficult discussions and debate. From the vicious acts of child abuse that occasionally pop up on the local news, to the post-bank robbery gunfight captured by the Live News helicopter just as the bullets spray bodies, man's homicidal inhumanity to his own kind never ceases to shock and amaze...especially when it is fostered in the young. Children, rightly or wrongly, are viewed as saints in grass-stained garb, too innocent to conceive of the heinous acts of murder or rape, yet equally condemned whenever their cherubic churlishness is paraded out in a courtroom or police press conference. In some manner of self-imposed stupidity, we believe that no normal kid could ever become so disturbed as to take rage to classmates and relish the retribution.
And yet the late 1990s seemed filled with one school shooting after another, the playground becoming a war zone as gun- and knife-toting teens spilled blood in the name of acknowledgment and despair. In April 1999, the worst example of such a statement, the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, woke up a nation sleeping in the soundness of the government's ability to monitor their miscreant offspring while also keeping society safe. With his controversial film of 2003, Elephant, director Gus Van Sant tries to dissect the unholy events that happened in the sacred halls of learning that horrible day. Van Sant wants to uncover the reason for such desperate, disgusting acts. But he may have fewer answers than we do.
It's a typical day at No-Name High School in Anywhere, USA. John is late, as usual, because his alcoholic father can barely drive him to school. It's another day of detention for this obviously troubled teen. Elias is taking pictures for a class project, and stops off at the darkroom to do some developing before heading out to shoot some more. For him, high school is just a pit stop on the roadway to the rest of his life. Nathan and Carrie are the future king and queen of the prom, an unwholesomely attractive couple who take any issue, from jealousy to unwanted pregnancy, with good-natured partying aplomb. On the polar opposite end of the campus is Michelle, an awkward, unattractive girl with personal and physical hang-ups registering loud and clear all over her bulky body.
And then there are Alex and Eric. Disaffected, disinterested, and dying for revenge, they spend their days as targets for the bullies and their nights in bloodshed-inspired fantasies. Planning and preparing, the boys simply decide one day that the pain has to stop: the ache of non-acceptance; the hurt of inherent individuality; the sting of superficial popularity and promise. Armed to the teeth and ready to die, this deadly duo wanders into their state-sponsored four-year parochial prison and opens fire. It's time for safari, secondary education style, as our hunters try to seek out and destroy Elephant -- the oh-so-obvious, larger-than-life targets of their hatred.
When the news of the massacre at Columbine High School first hit the media back in 1999, the reaction was swift and severe. Fingers of blame began pointing, but without any actual targets of responsibility initially, the spin doctoring blasted off into several surreal suggestions. Clarity came soon enough. Once terrorism and the random act of a madman were ruled out, the teen shooters were demonized and departmentalized. Experts crawled out from under the rhetoric rocks they store their talking heads under, and pundits pontificated on the social significance of disaffected youth. Soon, Marilyn Manson, Hollywood's action movie mania, and the Playstation nation of violent video games all gathered around to play scapegoat of the day. It wasn't long before the parents of these pathetic examples of familial disconnect were seen as the victims, asleep at the wheel and not to be liable for same. Schools shouted "sensitivity" and implemented policy changes to police the age-old issue of hazing and individual intimidation. Somewhere, gun nuts clamored to secure their inferred civil rights, while loose-lipped liberals demanded a radical rethinking of all weapon ownership. But what seemed to go missing from most of the hot air anarchy and sanctimonious, shell-shocked indignation was that 13 people died, and 21 more were injured (some permanently) at the hands of a couple of high school kids.
While not a strict dramatization of the events that fateful April day, Elephant is an attempt by filmmaker Gus Van Sant to rationalize and remember the horror heaped upon that small suburban Colorado community. Moving his story to the Pacific Northwest, and populating his cast with as many real-life high school kids as possible (to get away from the distance that twenty-something Hollywood seems to instill in portrayals of the young), Van Sant wants to create a microcosm, to wrap up the collective clique mentality with the actual world from which it is so incredibly far removed.
In Elephant, high school is Dante's Inferno, several close-knit circles of Hell all functioning in direct contradiction to each other. Using languid takes and perfectly framed Steadicam shots, one-time independent moviemaker Van Sant gambles his Tinsel Town clout (from such mainstream movies as Finding Forrester and Good Will Hunting) to experiment with form and style. Employing his camera like a surveillance device, standing behind our characters as they cruise through the hallways or go about their business, Van Sant makes us aware of the isolation, the sense of solidarity and insularity, in which these characters live. Even the gangs or groups -- the spoiled bulimic princesses who need to puke up lunch before they go shopping, or the BMOC and his possessive babe -- roam the vast spaces of the fictional high school like children lost in a world far to large for them to understand.
For a film that takes place in the overcrowded corridors of education, Elephant offers few glimpses of the learning process. Our main characters freely maneuver between classroom and the outdoors, seemingly required to do nothing more than make their presence known. Others pursue individual goals (picture taking, random roaming about) or avoid the sterile walls all together. The areas where we do witness student interaction comes in those minefields of potential humiliation and humbling -- the physical education class, the cafeteria, the showers / locker room -- or those arenas where unfounded opinions and ideas are nurtured and praised (a rather goofy meeting of the Gay/Straight Alliance). Suggesting that high school is a closed community consisting of even further isolated members trapped in their own baneful bubbles, loneliness and being alone are significant themes in Elephant. Van Sant, himself a homosexual, obviously identifies with the plights of the out-of-place teens in this story. He gives them more shading and subtlety than the brash, small-minded "popular" crowd. It is these lost souls who get to wander the corridors of Any School, USA, the camera lovingly capturing their casual movements as the social outcasting clouds and surrounds them.
Elephant is indeed an elegy to high school in the safe and secure pre-Ritalin days of decorum and deportment. It harbors a secret desire to deride the four-year process as one of the most shallow, sanctimonious, and sadistic chapters in a young person's life. None of the characters here seem genuinely happy. Each puts on a show for the others around them, hoping to hide whatever hurt lingers inside. Even the babbling beauty queens, who pick at their low-cal meals like birds over breadcrumbs and then proceed to hit the ladies room for a bulimia break, symbolize that everyone in homeroom has secrets they are keeping. No one is immune from personal embarrassment. John's father is so inebriated at mid-morning that he's barely comprehensible. Elias has horrible parents who constantly force him into his private world of photography. Connie is "late" and Nathan is worried. And Michelle has body issues, hiding her frame in long pants and oversized sweats. Before crimes like that which stained Columbine forever, these factors would have been worked into some manner of wacky comedy where a big brutish lout would convince his pot-smoking buddy to drop the bong for a moment and help him steal the final exam answer key. But in our psychobabble social order of reversed blame, shattered self-esteem, and juvenile dysfunction (no longer delinquency), kids are powder kegs waiting to explode. And in Elephant, anyone could become a gun-toting assassin. The fact that more are not is, perhaps, the most amazing thing.
Taking an all-or-nothing approach to his analysis, Van Sant has no real answers as to why young adolescents would want to wipe out their entire class. He taps into so many divergent causes that the almost-explanation becomes a blur. Of course, there is a focus on bullying and the jockocracy of high school (both of our killers are shown experiencing and/or admonishing the administration about harassment at the hands of arrogant assholes). Video games, graphic depictions of murder in virtual space, are also speculated on. An unhealthy fixation with Hitler and Nazi Germany is suggested, as well as unresolved sexual issues that seem wildly out of place in this otherwise plausible tone poem (our boys share a shower, and a sensual kiss, in one of the most unpleasant moments in the entire film). Add in introversion, artistic temperaments, absentee families, and latch key kinetics, and the hot-button issues begin to overthrow the sanguine simplicity of the film's first hour.
By the time we get to the attack, all action scenes and well-observed details, Elephant has lost us. At the beginning, its long takes and Kubrickian tracking shots lull us into a timeless space of ethereal human memory. But when our rifle-packing reprobates begin spewing their "awesome"-filled firefight, we are witnessing an entirely different movie. The attitude has shifted and grace is replaced by gratuitousness. True, for the first few scenes, we have awaited this moment. But when it arrives, Van Sant moves away from the picture poetry that got us here, and tosses in the typical squib-and-blood-bag ballyhoo to shock and satiate.
It is this break in tone that will divide most audiences for this movie. Film fans will take special umbrage with the fact that Van Sant's Rashomon approach was working so well. Focusing on a single character up until the time of the shooting, we get a real feel for the physical and interpersonal dynamics between the individuals. The suspense is heightened when we see the killers confronting John outside the school, telling him to avoid the melee about to occur. Happening a mere 20 minutes into the narrative, the images haunt us and the dread deepens as the sequence directly before the warning is repeated several times, from different perspectives. By the time Michelle hears the cocking of a gun outside the library, we are twisted with tension. But, again, the disgruntled angels of death throw Van Sant off. The movie swerves from its simple style to move into montage, to the random juxtaposition of images.
As said before, this is all part of Van Sant's omnibus approach to motive. But it really bothers the narrative flow and drags our focus away from the sensational state of unease created in Act One. After Act Two's tumble, all we have left is Act Three's "who will live and who will die" dilemma, and the film even fails to answer that quandary clearly. Van Sant purposefully leaves the ending open, never providing the closure or the hammer of justice that audiences enjoy to wrap up the narrative. He wants us to wonder, to question our own understanding of events, and to determine the fate of the fatalistic teens in our imagination.
Still, Elephant is a sensational and absorbing drama, hyper-realistic and loaded with natural performances. This is probably the first time -- forced sequence of group hurling aside -- that high school students have been moved out of the crass and cliché and into a truthful representation. Using mostly non-professionals and allowing for lots of improvisation, Van Sant allows his characters to speak in the language of lockers and relate to each other in the pick-quick clique order of classroom status, as unpredictable expressions of inner turmoil abound. Using his inventive structure to solidify the suspense, there is a true feeling of threat and unease throughout most of Van Sant's film. Those expecting excessive slaughter will be sadly mistaken. Unlike your typical Hollywood movie that romanticizes and stylizes violence to fill up the bloodbath, the shootings here and the gore that follows (minimal, of course) is handled in a matter-of-fact way. Some viewers will be put off by the lack of psychological clarity and a standard dramatic arch, but all experimentalism aside, Van Sant has crafted one of the most precise and disturbing looks at the concept of high school horrors and classroom shooting since Richard Bachman, a.k.a. Stephen King, released his pupil-with-a-rifle rant Rage in 1977. Ambitious and ambiguous, with a keen ear for the realities of teen life, Elephant is a very fine film.
HBO Video has released Elephant in a near-barebones flip disc DVD that is light on legitimate bonuses and amazing in its visual clarity. Interestingly, Elephant's original aspect ratio was 1.33:1 (it was intended for broadcast on cable). In a rare gesture for anamorphic conformity, the company has created a 1.85:1 widescreen image for theatrical and 16x9 presentations. The difference between the two transfers is shocking in its cinematic effect. In letterbox, the movie becomes more distant and dreamlike, the opening events playing out like nightmares of ominous normalcy. But in full frame, the characters are cropped closer to the screen, forcing us to feel confronted and concerned as to what will happen. This may be the first case where either print is perfectly acceptable for viewing and, in actuality, the 4:3 is just as good as the reconfigured framing. Both transfers are pristine, radiant with uncompromising color and ambient attributes. Sonically, Van Sant again pays tribute to Stanley K with his use of Ludwig Von Beethoven as his main underscoring. Between the beautiful "Fur Elise" and the melancholy "Moonlight Sonata," the growing gravitas of the movie's gloom and doom is substantially heightened via the Dolby Digital Soundtrack (in any of its DTS, 5.1 or 2.0 variations).
But in the area of extras, Elephant comes up substantially short. We are treated to a mostly pointless behind-the-scenes featurette which offers only a couple of interviews, some sequences of Van Sant shooting scenes, and way too much artsy-fartsy experimentation (multiple exposures, overlapping dissolves) to really give us anything viable about the production. Along with the theatrical trailer, which is as hypnotic as the film, these are the only added features offered for a film that won the 2003 Cannes Film Festival Palm D'Or and Best Director prizes (though you'd never learn that from the disc -- you have to read that information on the keep case). What this DVD presentation really cries out for is a Van Sant commentary. Many of the elements he exploits for the purpose of this movie demand explanation, and without an alternate narrative track, we will never decipher what some of them mean. Given a chance to explain his ideas and inspirations, some of the more suspect issues presented could be more clearly understood. Without it, the DVD feels very incomplete.
So, in the end, what does Elephant mean? Not as a movie. Director Gus Van Sant smacks us over the head with his palpable compassion for the picked-on and abused, and we get the whole "payback's a bitch" pitch right up front. But why call it Elephant? Rumor has it that the filmmaker was paying homage to a 1989 film by Alan Clarke, also called Elephant, that focused on the unfathomable violence in Northern Ireland. Van Sant also champions the Dogma 95 ideal of moviemaking, which this film sort of follows. So maybe Elephant is his own interpretation of said minimalist cinematic philosophy.
Perhaps it has to do with the world's largest land mammal and what it signifies. As an entity, the elephant is so large -- like the problem of bullying and teen violence -- that it cannot be ignored. The old saying says that an elephant has an ironclad memory and he never forgets...so unforgettable are the Columbine-style crimes. The pachyderm is also an unfathomable beast (especially to the six blind men in the Indian fable). The sightless scholars have as much difficulty figuring out the elephant as the pundits have prescribing plausible scenarios for high school killings. And don't forget that Dumbo does double duty as a drunken pink effigy (like the inebriating sensations of power) and as the symbol for the Republican Party (strong gun-rights advocates). Most cultures claim the creatures are strong and powerful, noble and superior, reasons why big-game marksmen want to cut them down. But when the hunter gets captured by the game -- in this case, the poor picked-upon nerds and geeks of your typical high school -- the carnage is much more disastrous. Maybe that's why they call it Elephant after all.
Gus Van Sant and Elephant are found not guilty and are free to go. HBO Video is remanded back to the Probation Division of the DVD Extras Halfway House program, until such time as they understand the necessity of adding substantive bonus material to their discs.
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 80 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Featurette: On the Set of Elephant: Rolling Through Time
* Theatrical Trailer
* HBO Video Previews