Directed by Gus Van Sant, starring Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Kristen Hicks, Jordan Taylor, Carrie Finklea, Nicole George, Brittany Mountain and Alicia Miles.
Since 'Good Will Hunting' in 1998, Gus Van Sant's career has not followed the path you might expect of a director who was nominated for an Oscar and whose film went on to win two. Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of 'Psycho' was savaged; his next film, 'Finding Forrester', was enjoyed by some; not too many saw his experimental, stranded-in-the-desert movie 'Gerry' and because of its subject matter, 'Elephant' was financed by cable channel HBO. It has since gone on to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes and has been hailed by some as an arthouse director returning to what he does best. Audiences will be split as to whether that's a compliment.
Heavily improvised, using a cast of unknown teenagers and owing a debt to Alan Clarke's 1989 film on Northern Ireland of the same name, 'Elephant' chronicles the day of and build up to a massacre at a US high school. In long, lingering shots with little dialogue we are introduced to various students: a free spirit, an aspiring photographer, a sports star and his possibly pregnant girlfriend, a misfit, three cheerleader types and the two killers. It's ponderous stuff and as Van Sant follows them around, often showing a scene (eg a corridor conversation) from a different point of view, so arises the question as to whether this is a director testing the patience of audiences conditioned to expect scenes in quick succession or one trying to show the geography of the school and people's whereabouts before the chaos. And that dilemma of wondering just what Van Sant is trying to achieve runs throughout the film.
Watching 'Elephant' is akin to staring at a phone because bad news is due at any minute. When a character turns a corner you expect shooting; when that doesn't happen you breathe out and wait for the next tracking shot. That constant awareness of impending tragedy is offset by the film's dreamy visuals. With shots of sky, snatches of conversations and mundane scenes 'Elephant' feels like the kind of film high school students might make if they were sent out for the day with a camera.
That idea of 'Elephant' being a student's movie becomes even more pronounced after it's finished, or rather half-finished. Van Sant deserves credit for tackling what mainstream cinema sees as a taboo subject - right now - but why does it have to be so slapdash? Its style and structure means that, unlike say 'Bowling for Columbine', 'Elephant' is only going to be seen by a certain section of the cinema-going public. The issues in this film should connect with as wide an audience as possible - not just liberals whose minds are made up about guns before they go to see it.
And yet there are flashes where you can see what 'Elephant' could have been. A scene where - after lunch - we follow three girls into a bathroom for their ritual of making themselves sick has a power that much of the film lacks. Similarly, seeing one of the gunboys (sic) admit to the other in a shower that he's never kissed anyone, just hours before the carnage, is the type of insight this film needed. As an elegy to wasted potential this film is poignant, as an experiment it's lacking in conclusions.
Ultimately, this is a film that will get people who have seen it talking. The fear, however, is that, like this review, the conversations will be about what Van Sant was trying to achieve, rather than the issues behind it.