Elephant


Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Written by:Gus Van Sant
Starring: John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Alex Frost, Jordan Taylor, Eric Deulen
Released: April 22, 2004
Grade: A

Elephant will leave you talking.  There’s a fair chance you won’t see another film like it.  Does this mean it’s the must see movie of the year?  Not necessarily.

On April 20, 1999, two teenage students went on shooting rampage at Columbine High School in the small town of Littleton, Colorado.  In all, 13 students were killed and a further 25 were injured.  As expected, the event sparked a media frenzy.  Everyone had an opinion as to why these kids had done what they had done.  Some blamed violent video movies and video games.  Some blamed gun control.  Some blamed bullying in schools.  Some blamed the parents.  Some blamed everyone.

Filmmaker Michael Moore used the shootings as the basis for his award winning and universally praised documentary, Bowling For ColumbineElephant is not a retelling of the Columbine story.  Rather, it is a fictional story of two teenagers, Alex (Frost) and Eric (Duelen), who also go on a similar high school killing spree.

Last year, Elephant claimed one of the highest honours in film – the top prize (known as the Palm D’or) at the Cannes Film Festival.  I have a huge respect for this award as it is voted upon by a select jury of film aficionados.  Previous winners of the Palm D’or include The Pianist, Dancer In The Dark, Secrets & Lies and Pulp Fiction.  Despite the acclaim, you won’t be seeing Elephant at many cinemas in Australia.  The film is receiving a very small release and this can be attributed to its distinctive art-house style.

What do I mean by this?  Well, the film is shot very much like a documentary.  The camera follows a group of selected students around the school in the hours leading up to the shootings.  They are just going about their day like it is any other day.  There are scenes that run for several minutes and are nothing more than kids walking up and down the school corridors.  It may sound boring on paper but I found that director Gus Van Sant’s style enhanced my liking for the characters.  These are just ordinary people and knowing their pending fate left a chilling feeling in my stomach.

Also impressive about Elephant is its conscious decision not to imply a singular reason for the tragedy.  I enjoy such films as they allow us to think about the film rather than letting the film think for us.  This approach by Gus Van Sant has not gone unnoticed and controversy has surrounded it since its Cannes premiere.  Only recently I saw the usually likable Andrew Warne of Foxtel’s Showtime Movie News describing his disgust for film’s cold blooded finale.

There isn’t a familiar name amongst the cast with the performances largely improvised.  The casting crew auditioned over 3,000 teenagers in the Portland area for the leading roles and those selected were encouraged to use their own experiences at school to shape their characters.  These unproven actors do an incredible job and it’s great to see Gus Vant Sant being rewarded for taking the risk with such an alternative concept.

An inspiration to Van Sant was a BBC documentary on school violence shot filmed in 1989 by late Alan Clarke.  It was also called Elephant and Van Sant’s own use of the title serves as a tribute.  Clarke’s use of the title came from his saying that the problem is as easy to ignore as an elephant in a living room.  An appropriate phrase indeed and I similarly urge you not to ignore this film at any cost.