Gus Van Sant's latest took Best Film and Best Director honors at this year's much-maligned Cannes festival, and I've heard some mumblings that ELEPHANT got the big prizes only due to a dearth of competition. Well, I'm here to dispel the rumors; this is a strong, uncompromising, oddly beautiful film that deserves its laurels.Inspired by the Columbine shootings (though it is not a recreation), ELEPHANT follows several students over the course of a deceptively "typical" day at an Oregon high school--a day that will eventually end in violence.
The tone is muted; Van Sant rapidly establishes the low-key mood with long tracking shots, electing simply to follow these kids as they make their way up and down the school hallways, their individual lives briefly criss-crossing at random intervals. For much of the running time, not much of anything really "happens." This is the sort of thing that tends to annoy the MTV generation, but it's refreshing just to be able to look at things, to be able to observe without being prodded by obtrusive editing or overbearing soundtracks.
The key to ELEPHANT lies in the apparent pointlessness of its events. This is, after all, the way most of us live--it's not very Hollywood, but it's true to the facts of day-to-day existence. Even the teenage killers seem like typical kids; when they're preparing to blow away their classmates, chatting about nothing in particular, they don't come across as all that different from the bullimic girls who spend their day in nonstop gossip mode. These boys aren't symbols of national decay or insurgent fascism. They're just kids. And though they never realize it, they have a lot in common with their peers. ELEPHANT brings to mind Hannah Arendt's famous observation about the banality of evil.
Van Sant sensationalizes nothing; very little in this film is done for "effect," and this gives the film its power. (He possibly missteps with all that cliche darkening-cloud imagery, but that's a minor point.) Scenes tend to begin and end almost arbitrarily; sometimes Van Sant (who also edited) even cuts away in the middle of a sentence.The effect of all this is haunting; this is easily one of the most sheerly memorable films of the year.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Vancouver Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Starz Denver Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.