Saturday, February 11, 2017
21st Century Essentials: Elephant (2003)
Director: Gus Van Sant
Starring: John Robinson, Alex Frost, Eric Deulen
Country: United States
Tragic days start out as ordinary days. Gus Van Sant’s Elephant is about a school shooting that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Columbine massacre, and it fashions itself as a story about how a day begins in typical fashion only to end in horror, the change occurring suddenly and altering everything forever. Like many films based on real tragedies where the turnaround between the actual event and the release of the fictionalized version is short, Elephant was controversial when it came out. Critic Todd McCarthy decried it as “irresponsible” in his review for Variety, which seems a bit histrionic now but maybe in 2003, just four years removed from Columbine, the tragedy still felt too sacrosanct for a fictional depiction. Then again, maybe McCarthy’s reaction was just a result of disorientation since Elephant doesn’t behave in the way that you might expect it to. It’s not an emotional film, but one which stands at a distance from its subject, presenting its violence in a matter of fact way and making no attempt to understand why it is happening. Answers and catharsis are comforting, bald recounting of tragic events are not, and maybe that’s why Elephant seemed so alienating in 2003 and why it feels so powerful now.
Taking place over the course of one day, introducing several students who attend the same high school and watching them as they go about their usual business, Elephant is at first rather mundane. We meet Elias (Elias McConnell), who spends the day going around the school taking pictures for a photography project; Nathan (Nathan Tyson) and Carrie (Carrie Finklea), a popular couple; Michelle (Kristen Hicks), an outcast who often appears in the background of other characters’ scenes; Brittany (Brittany Mountain), Jordan (Jordan Taylor), and Nicole (Nicole George), a trio of friends; Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen), the two killers; and John (John Robinson), who functions as the de facto protagonist, possessing the point of view that the film continuously finds itself returning to and acting as an audience surrogate as he stands removed from the violence, struggling to comprehend it.
It is John who sees the two killers before they begin their spree, decked out in combat gear and carrying a duffle bag full of weapons, going into the school just as he’s heading out. There is no mercy once the killers get inside, but in this moment Alex warns John to keep walking and not go back inside. From there Elephant is frank without being sensationalistic, with Van Sant showing victims being killed without stylistic flourishes that might make it seem like the act is being glorified in any way (and in fact the killings often unfold so that the gunman is shown taking aim and the victim is just beyond the camera’s view, the death suggested instead of seen). In depicting the massacre, Van Sant works to strip away the conventions of movie language and the comfort of fantasy that goes along with it. In the film’s final act, a new character is suddenly introduced and he strides through the empty hallways with a sense of purpose, moving into the chaos instead of away from it. When he finds one of the gunmen he walks directly towards him, and because countless movies have taught us to expect that the archetype this character represents is going to bring the madness to the end by acting out a self-defence fantasy in which he overpowers the gunman, we’re briefly soothed into a false sense of security and then wrenched out of it again when the scene plays out exactly the way that it likely would in real life. It's an unnerving moment, giving the audience a glimpse of something it recognizes as a traditional/comfortable kind of narrative and then snatching it away and replacing it with cold brutality, and it functions to demonstrate what Van Sant is doing with this film, actively removing the viewer from a “movie” mindset and challenging the notion that real life acts of violence are the product of violent films by making this film as uncinematic (in traditional, Hollywood terms) as possible.
To that end the film is pitched at a deliberately low key which renders the first half rather monotonous, draining away any preemptive sense of urgency or tension that a viewer might bring into it knowing what it’s about so that Van Sant can recontextualize those feelings once the film is ready for them to be introduced. It’s a bold strategy in that it can leave the viewer feeling bored or frustrated as they wait for the actual story to start, watching scenes of no real consequence unfold in a casual manner, some moments revisited over and over again, each time from the perspective of a different character; but there’s also something hypnotic about it if you have the patience for it. Elephant is certainly a muted piece of work, but it’s an effective film precisely because it takes such an arm's length approach to what's happening and offers no answers. Instead it knows that even with all the answers laid out and everything neatly explained, there’s no sense to be made from something like this. It just is, and in the act of bearing witness Elephant displays a power that is timeless.