To make a film about something like the Columbine student shootings incident and provide no insight or enlightenment would seem to be pointless at best and irresponsible at worst, and that is what Gus Van Sant has done in “Elephant.” An art film exercise that attempts to adapt the improvisational techniques of “Gerry” to a more real world setting, this small-scale HBO Films offering achieves some glancing poetic effects during its first hour, but becomes gross and exploitative during the shooting rampage of the final act. The director’s name, HBO imprimatur and subject matter will inevitably draw attention to this failed attempt to find a fresh method to deal dramatically with a traumatic topic, and while foreign sales to some prime territories are likely, theatrical prospects remain very modest.
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Certainly any material is fair game for dramatization given the proper approach. When Michael Moore included video coverage of the eponymous high school massacre in “Bowling for Columbine,” there was something virtually pornographic about showing such material for its shock value alone. That’s not the effect with “Elephant,” but there are still perhaps unavoidable echoes of it; when you’re sitting there during the long stretch of character introductions just wondering with creeping dread who the eventual victims are going to be, the very premise of the picture has to be judged deeply flawed.
And while it is clearly not Van Sant’s intent to offer a facile explanation for why two teenage boys marched into their high school with assault weapons with the aim of picking off as many of their fellow students as possible, he does so when he reveals the killers to be gay-inclined Nazis! You might have expected such a characterization of young renegades from a hack Hollywood screenwriter, but not from Van Sant.
Yet there the boys are, one of them playing Beethoven on the piano while the other plays a violent video game, then watching an old Hitler documentary and making out in the shower before setting off on their rampage. It’s well known that Columbine took place on Hitler’s birthday and that the shooters had a fascination with Nazism, but to simply point the finger at the arch villain of the last century and let it go at that is simplistic and evasive of other issues.
It would probably have been a good idea if Van Sant had made a point of more conspicuously avoiding direct parallels to Columbine if he wanted to deal with the questions raised by it. Indeed, the relaxed, undramatic manner in which he introduces the kids suggests a desire to create a distinctive blend of character naturalism and visual abstraction that comes together in fits and starts.
Ranging about a suburban Portland, Ore., high school and its environs on a nice day enlivened by the colored leaves of early autumn, pic catches various students as they go about their business. There’s a lanky aspiring photographer taking pictures in a park and developing them in the school darkroom; a blond dude dealing with the principal after being dropped off late by his dad; a hot football player who’s glommed onto by his girlfriend and inspires gossip among an inseparable trio of cute girls; a group batting issues around at a Gay/Straight Alliance meeting, and a self-conscious nerdy girl who won’t undress or shower with the others.
Then there are Alex and Eric, who are quickly identifiable as the eventual shooters. When one scribbles notes about the layout of the cafeteria, a girl asks what he’s writing and he responds, ominously, “You’ll see.” Eventually, they order a high-powered automatic rifle from a Website and when it’s delivered right to their door, no questions asked, they’re in business.
Guiding his non-pro actors through the multiple basic situations he had developed and relying upon them to provide their own dialogue, Van Sant presents aspects of a “normal” high school day, without melodramatics or conventional stories per se. He also juggles time and repeats some incidents from different points of view, an initially intriguing effect that serves no greater purpose in the end.
No matter how easy and natural the kids seem on camera, Van Sant’s approach is ultimately superficial; you get a certain feeling for these teenagers (most of whom are conspicuously attractive in an almost fashion model sort of way), but you don’t get to know them at all, so any involvement with them in the normal manner of screen fiction is minimal.
Climactic violence is handled in abrupt spasms of shooting separated by long eerie silences. Manner in which the victims are dispatched creates an emotional/aesthetic double-edged sword: that Van Sant doesn’t prolong or dwell on the deaths removes the voyeuristic element of standard crime films, but their quick disposal also depersonalizes them nearly to the extent of relegating them to the status of statistics.
Just before they begin, one shooter says to the other, “Most importantly, have fun,” which is meant to convey a chilling sense of their utter amorality and sense of disconnect with humanity. But the boys have been presented in such a surface way that the moment has much less effect than it might have with proper dramatic development.
Pic is nicely crafted, with Harris Savides’ fluid, often hand-held camerawork (in the old 1.33 aspect ratio) evincing an easy grace and Leslie Shatz’s sound design combining silences, augmented ambient sounds and the odd musical snippet to sometimes arresting effect.
Title was taken from a much-admired 1989 BBC film by the late Alan Clarke about violence in Northern Ireland.