A day in the lives of a group of average teenage high school students. The film follows every character and shows their daily routines. However two of the students plan to do something that the student body won't forget. Written by
Gus VanSant's ELEPHANT isn't an unquestionable masterpiece, but it's close. I found it to be hypnotic and gripping, and in spite of knowing how things would end, I still found the ending to be devastating.
The lone flaw I can identify is originality - this film owes a tremendous debt to certain international directors (Bela Tarr and an earlier Irish ELEPHANT, along with current maverick directors like Abbas Kiarostami, Hirokazu Kore'eda and Tsai Ming-liang) in both look and perspective, and it's not the only recent American film to make effective use of poetic imagery: FAR FROM HEAVEN, LOST IN TRANSLATION, CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES, RAISING VICTOR VARGAS all took a similar approach to their subject matter, and were all just as effective.
But VanSant's style has matured - the sky scenes in ELEPHANT seem to quote DRUGSTORE COWBOY, and in both films they symbolize the passage of time, the general drift of life, and in opening with such a scene, VanSant is offering a subtle warning that ELEPHANT is poetic and interpretive, not a docudrama or realistic take on high school shootings, and shouldn't be taken as such. Characters drift through the day, knowing each other at mostly superficial levels (not moving beyond the level of stereotypes), which feels like what I remember high school to often be, and VanSant has no interest or need to move beyond that - to 'read into' these characters, or have them make grand speeches and gestures would've only made this film preposterous.
ELEPHANT isn't about the media (which is ubiquitous), homosexuality (a random genetic occurrence found in any setting), bullies (which exist everywhere as well, though for psychological or sociological reasons) or any variety of high school caste system - it's about the randomness of violence, and the first two thirds of this film - in both the gliding long shots following characters (and the audio, with conversations drifting in and out), and the fragmented timeline (shifting back and forth in time as it moves from one character to another) - is a startling portrayal of the random, anonymous nature of an average day at school. It could be noted that the school is just a location of convenience in VanSant's hands; this film (or the incidents depicted in it) could be set anywhere, which is partly the point. In much of the world, random, senseless violence is always a possibility, which is really what this film observes and (in the horror of the depiction) protests, and it's just as much of a tragedy when it occurs in a generic, random, average setting (like this school and the people in it), as when it occurs in a dramatic, unusual setting that creates martyrs and heroes.
A very challenging film, in the best of ways. For quite a while, we've seen a number of films attempt to explore similar themes (most interestingly, many of Stanley Kubrick's films), often going for the opposite approach - startling an audience with intensity and violence: the heavy-handed brutality of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (the most brilliant example of shock tactics used effectively, though lacking the subtlety that makes other Kubrick films stronger), or Larry Clark's far more exploitative and dull KIDS (a genuinely sloppy and anticlimactic film which seems to exist mainly to give a sheltered audience a few 'shocking' cheap thrills to get off on, offering few insights that hadn't already been offered elsewhere). ELEPHANT stuns primarily by taking the opposite route - languid and poetic - which ultimately makes it all the more powerful.
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