Columbine High School. Those three words alone still send shivers up my spine. Like many people around the nation that fateful morning on April 20th, 1999, I was stunned to hear that two teenagers from that school have perpetrated the single worst school shooting incident in U.S. history. Armed to the teeth with a large cache of semi-automatic weapons and homemade bombs, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed thirteen people at the school before turning their guns on themselves. At the same time that I was shocked at the tragedy, I was also very far away from the crime scene, insulated, if you will, from the horrors that unfolded that morning. For most of us, what we know--which ultimately forms our emotional connection to the tragic events--we obtain from television news reports and other media. As the news slowly fade away, so do most of our memory of the victims and survivors of Columbine. For many of us who are not directly connected to Columbine--being just horrified bystanders from hundreds and thousands of miles away--our lives continue on as normal in the weeks following April 20th. Some of us may even have had the morbid curiosity to imagine what it must have been like to be able to see the events unfold right before our eyes. If you do, then "Elephant" is a film tailor-made for you.
Written and directed by leading creative force and independent filmmaker Gus Van Sant ("Good Will Hunting", the remake of "Psycho"), "Elephant" fulfils that curiosity to a tee and at the same time, leaves behind a scar that is hard to ignore and harder to forget. With "Elephant", Van Sant has given us his disturbing version of school violence in America that comes chillingly close to the Columbine tragedy. So close, in fact, that it is next to impossible not to see the horrific parallels. Everything about the film's two perpetrators' possible influences, from violent video games to Nazism follow what most of us already know about Columbine's Harris and Klebold. Van Sant even chose to include a lesser-known theory that both the killers might be homosexuals.
To set an ominous tone for the rest of the movie, "Elephant" opens with a speeded-up time-lapsed shot of the sky, as it turns from a beautiful clear blue to dark and cloudy while the cheery sounds of kids play in the background. It starts off innocently enough as any normal school day does. Yellowed dried leaves litter the ground, indicating a cool and crisp fall day. A car swerves erratically down a quiet neighborhood, almost causing an accident. As it stops, we see John (John Robinson) get out from the passenger side and order his drunken father, played by Timothy Bottoms, to surrender the wheel to him. He gets to school late and is reprimanded by the principal Mr. Luce (Matt Malloy). Then we meet Elias (Elias McConnell), an avid photographer, shooting pictures on his way to school. Next, the camera follows behind Nathan (Nathan Tyson), a handsome jock, as he walks from the field to the school's office, where he meets up with his girlfriend, Nicole (Nicole George). The scene then shifts back to John, as we watch him walk out of Mr. Luce's office and past none other than Nathan and Nicole. Déjà vu. Suddenly, it dawns on the audience that they are watching a previous scene, but from another perspective. And so it continues, with the camera moving from one character to another, showing us different perspectives and taking liberties with a slightly non-linear storyline.
Until now, everything seems like just another regular day. The turning point arrives unexpectedly when John walks out of the school building and brushes past Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen), who are clad in military fatigues and hauling big heavy bags. At this exact juncture, the entire tone of the film changes to a nefarious one. We know what is coming but Van Sant lets the audience simmer on that uncomfortable thought as he continues to explore the various perspectives of each character. In one unsettling scene at the school cafeteria, while the camera focuses on three female characters eating and chatting, we could just catch a brief glimpse of John outside through the cafeteria glass windows at the precise moment that he meets Alex and Eric. It is such a powerful scene that just shoots the suspense level through the roof, knowing what is to come next.
Like a distant observer to the proceedings, Van Sant uses the camera in a way that keeps a small distance from his on-screen subject, often following the actors from the start of their journey as they walk along the long maze-like school corridors to their destination. In this case, the camera is used as an effective tool to build up tension and anticipation, helped by a deliberate slow-down in the film's pacing as the camera follows the characters around in real-time as they go about their usual business. Knowing what we know, for more than half the movie we are always anticipating the killers to jump out of a corner and start shooting.
As we look at each character more closely, we begin to see a clear disparity emerge from within the ranks of the students. For some it is the best years of their lives and for others, it is pure hell. While this angle has been explored in countless other films, there is just no escaping it as it is just part and parcel of the high school experience.
As for the shooters, Alex and Eric, Van Sant chooses not to dwell on or examine their motives but show tidbits of possible influences. We see Alex getting picked on in class, Eric playing violent video games and their fascination with Hitler by having an old Nazi newsreel play on the kids' television set. It would have been easy for Van Sant to assign blame to any one of those factors but instead he gives the audience a choice to either make up their own minds or not at all. In fact, none of us, other than the killers, will ever know what really set them off. Rather than try to find a reason to the madness with "Elephant", Van Sant simply forces us to look at the many individuals involved and what constitutes a life, as it is cut short in an instant. Nothing fancy. Nothing earth shattering.
One thing that sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the impending carnage is the use of Beethoven's music throughout the film. Before embarking on their killing spree, Alex is shown playing the beautiful Fur Elise on the piano, revealing a soft side that juxtaposes wildly with the evil and the violence. This scene leaves us with directly opposing questions like, "Maybe there is a chance that he can still be saved" or "He is so far gone, he has descended into complete and utter madness". Whatever the response, it never gets a chance to be answered.
Using an entire cast of virtual unknowns, Van Sant displays his skill as a director by being able to coax outstanding performances from all of them. Shot in Portland, Oregon where Van Sant lives, he and producer Danny Wolf decide to shoot the film with a loose script and lots of improvisation. Casting actual Portland high school students with very little or no acting experiences, Van Sant allows authenticity to permeate into the film. Given that he used the same strategy of improvisation on "Gerry", it is a relief that this time around, it has worked out very well.
"Elephant" is released as a single double-sided disc. Both the anamorphic widescreen and fullframe version of the film are located on Side A. The other side of the disc is allocated for the special features. With an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the widescreen version, as well as the fullscreen one are very well reproduced with vivid colors and natural skin tones. Seeing that "Elephant" is such a recent production, the video, as expected, is beautifully transferred with no dirt or scratches to report.
The audio tracks complement the excellent video transfer very well. Featuring Engish language DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround 2.0, "Elephant" sounds as good as it looks. Although mostly dialogue-driven, the melancholy flow of the film enables the classical Beethoven music and environment sounds to periodically swarm the surrounds. Also available are audio tracks in Spanish mono and French mono.
Although the entire Side B is set aside for extra features, only two are available. The feature "On the Set of Elephant: Rolling Through Time" is a 12-minute behind-the-scenes look at the film's production. It is very sparse with occasional interviews with the cast and production footages. The only other feature available is the film's theatrical trailer.
So what does the title actually mean? What has an elephant got to do with school violence? First of all, the late British filmmaker, Alan Clarke's 1989 work of the same name, which dealt with Northern Ireland's sectarian violence, had a big influence on Van Sant. Clarke titled his film after the old saying about ignoring an elephant in the living room, which carries the same interpretation in the case of school violence in America. A highly appropriate analogy.
Winner of the prestigious Palme d'Or prize at the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival, "Elephant" is actually one of a handful of winners that actually deserves that prize. With "Elephant", Van Sant forces us to look at the minuteness of each individual without losing sight of the bigger tragedy. It doesn't pretend to try and answer any compelling questions but instead gives us a first-hand account of what it is like to be caught in that tragic situation. We are the ultimate voyeurs in the worst possible way. Turn away if you can't stomach it but this is reality with a capital r. With a non-traditional filmmaking style that slowly raises the level of tension until the final climax, Van Sant has given us his best work to date.