Published Jan 01, 2006Elephant, the new film by Gus Van Sant, is spare and austere, full of long tracking shots of the mundane comings and goings of a series of ordinary high school students. But Van Sant knows where to place a camera, and he has the storytelling instincts and persistence to infuse the mundane with a sense of mystery and tension. His shots of the suburban sky, full of gathering clouds and high-tension wires, have a sweeping grandeur to them; this is high school angst elevated to the level of poetry.
Van Sant gives us a gaggle of stereotypical characters (the nerdy girl, the jock, the goths, etc.) and then he shows us what we never see in teen movies: their boring daily routine, going to and from classes, shelving books in the library and strolling to school. Then, woven into this seemingly dull, morally blank environment, are two students who are gathering their weapons, donning army fatigues and making their way to the school. You could analyse their Columbine-like plan for answers (they’re seen watching a Hitler documentary), but any clues that Van Sant throws in the mix are just red herrings. In this anonymous school, an act of violence might be motivated by revenge, but it’s just as likely that it’s an act of perverse self-determination in the face of a cookie-cutter existence.
This is an astonishing, riveting, but ultimately flawed film. Van Sant is taking his visual and thematic cues from recent art films like 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance and La Vie de Jesus, except that I’m not really sure he knows what he’s doing with this material. He lapses into caricature at times (the popular girls go to the bathroom and purge their lunches in unison; the pure-of-heart "good" kid altruistically takes care of his drunken father) and it’s as if Van Sant’s recently acquired Hollywood instincts start to show themselves.
And even if this film tries to transcend the inscrutability of its subject matter, I was left with the impression that while Van Sant had supreme stylistic finesse, he was just playing an elaborate shell game. By the end I felt like I was being conned into believing there was more to it than meets the eye. (Alliance Atlantis)