Elephant Gus Van Sant

ElephantGus Van Sant
Gus Van Sant's latest film, Elephant, is set on a beautiful fall day at an Oregon high school. Oh, what a difference a day makes. Inspired by the mass shootings at Columbine High School in April of 1999, the film's title might be cryptic (does it metaphorically allude to something monumental that we should all see yet choose to ignore?) but its artistic temperament is sure: to get past our defences in as raw a way as possible. Shot with incredible deftness by Harry Saviles, the film manages with very little dialogue to evoke a stillness and analytical distance that we mostly associate with nature films. With the camera positioned just behind their heads, characters are introduced randomly and scenes replay from their various perspectives as we float through their world — the corridors, the cafeteria and the library — taking in everything. There is John (John McFarland) the tow-headed stoner kid who has to take over the wheel from his father on their ride to school, Nathan (Nathan Tyson) the jock and his too-cool girlfriend Carrie (Carrie Finklea), and Michelle (Kristen Hicks), a nerdy girl who cuts through a darkened gymnasium rather than take on the stares of her more well-endowed peers. Mundane though it may seem, by placing us in real time with both the victims and the killers, the director forces us to examine everything more closely and the effect is stunning. Even though we know how this will all end, every sound — from a locker slamming to a too-high voice in the hall — sets our already jangled nerves on end, so much so that by the time the massacre arrives we are almost relieved to have the knots in our stomach disappear. And the shooting spree is terrible, cruel in the nature of its randomness and the cold videogame-style detachment of its perpetrators. In fact, if there can be a criticism it is that it is difficult to know what Van Sant wants us to go away with beyond the gun shots. The inclusion of a director's commentary track might have cleared up the matter — it lacks features of any kind beyond a 12-minute documentary short and a preview reel — but that just might be the point. It's up to us to wrestle with the meaning of this huge thing. (Warner Brothers)