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
On April 20, 1999, two boys wearing trench coats carried a daunting arsenal of weapons harnessed with military web gear into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and systematically gunned down thirteen students. Gruesome though it was, the incident was just one of eight fatal high school shootings between 1997 and 1999. These traumatizing events began a debate about what was wrong with the nation's youth, an issue that is the subject of Gus Van Sant's Elephant.
Winner of the Golden Palm at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, Elephant is a brilliant and deeply affecting film that makes a courageous attempt to grasp the malaise of today's youth culture. Van Sant does not attempt to explain Columbine or uncover its underlying causes, and there is no revealing epiphany. His film is a highly stylized, dreamlike tone poem that defies linear conventions and is almost surreal in its approach. Using flashbacks and recurring images from different points of view, the film captures the mood and tone of its adolescent world: its perceptions, its self-absorption, and ultimately its darkest instincts.
The camera is a detached observer, and the strength of the film lies in its acute power of observation and detail. Van Sant shows us all the surface rituals: the girl cheerleaders, the boys playing football, the locker-lined hallways, the academic discussions, yet an ineffable feeling of loneliness pervades. The picture features impeccable acting by a group of non-professionals from the Portland, Oregon area. Each character is introduced separately and we see them going about their business on a seemingly ordinary school day. The steadicam-tracking camera follows them as they walk through the sterile halls that seem endless. The school appears without life -- a place where one feels a desperate sense of loss.
We see John (John Robinson), a blonde-haired surfer type, take over the driving from his father who has had too much to drink, then get called to task by an administrator for being late for school. Eli (Elias McConnell) is a photographer who asks classmates, including John, to pose for pictures. Football player Jordan (Jordan Taylor) meets his girlfriend Carrie (Carrie Finklea) for lunch. Three friends Nicole (Nicole George), Brittany (Brittany Mountain), and Acadia (Alicia Miles) gossip and argue about who is whose best friend. Michelle (Kristen Hicks) refuses to wear shorts, is admonished by her teacher, and then goes to work in the library. The paths of these students crisscross throughout the film and each has their own destiny to fulfill when the violence erupts.
The main protagonists, Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen) are modeled after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of Columbine. When we first meet Alex, he is being shunned by his fellow students, called names and pelted with spitballs in science class. Alex is more outgoing and creative, Eric more passive, but their personalities complement each other. Alex and Eric wait at home until a strange package arrives in the mail while Alex plays Beethoven's "Fur Elise" on the piano. When they return to school, they are dressed in combat gear and ready to kill.
Rather than giving us pat answers, Van Sant bases his approach on the elusiveness of truth, and our insatiable desire to know more. The imagery and camerawork are almost painfully beautiful, while the disconnected narrative deliberately withholds closure. On top of all this, the pacing is superb, slowly building up the almost unbearable tension. When it is finally released, the explosion hits you with a frightening energy that is as unforgettable as it is chilling.
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