Review: Elephant (2003)

elephant

Haunting and brilliant!

Written By: Gus Van Sant
Directed By: Gus Van Sant

Writing a review for Elephant is a tricky proposition, because I don’t know if I can do the film justice. There is a lot to digest after watching Elephant, brilliant camera work, scenery, direction, writing, metaphors, and ideas. You name it and Elephant does it in genius fashion. However I have found that Elephant is quite the polarizing film, it is either loved or hated, there is no in between. This could also be said of the man behind Elephant, Gus Van Sant, he is either a genius or someone who suffers from self-importance, there is no in between. I prefer to think of Mr. Van Sant as a genius and Elephant as one of my most loved films.

What immediately entranced me with Elephant was the banality of the films vision. Too often movies about the subject matter that Elephant tackles are Hollywood message movies, where motives are explained, the line is drawn between good and evil, and everyone is supposed to leave the theater feeling satisfied that they are a moral person who just watched moral depravity. Elephant is the exact opposite, it doesn’t explain a single motive, there is no good and evil and everyone leaves the theater questioning why those kids were killers and how come their own high school aged son or daughter isn’t one. Mr. Van Sant isn’t a fool, he makes sure to feed into the media stereotype with multiple red herrings about the killers. Maybe they are killers because they are picked on at school. Or maybe it’s because they watch old films about Nazi’s. Or maybe it’s because they might be gay, or maybe they are just psychotic. The reason that Elephant truly gives is the scariest reason of all, they are killers because they are people, just like you and me. You never know who has that ability to be a killer inside of them and Elephant shows us that in all its raw fear inducing truth.

But, back to the banality, great movies tend to sidetrack me. Elephant provides the greatest insight into school shootings because it shows just how normal life was for every student at that school, including the killers. There isn’t anything special about them; the jocks, the hot girls, the nerds; anyone. They live their lives one second at a time and they are all caught in their own minutiae, face their own kind of ridicule, and dealing with problems beyond their ability to control. That level of banality makes the movie even scarier because the killers could have been any kid at that school, they all had reasons to fall back upon if they were the ones doing the shooting.

Elephant isn’t your standard film, not only in subject matter but in the way it presents its atmosphere and the way it is shot. From the moment Elephant begins the standard Hollywood clichés are used against us. The dashing young men with the good looks aren’t the heroes and have no different fate set aside for them. The young man silently stalking the corridors will not run into the killers and save the day. A camera shot is not limited to a mere few seconds, but can be held for what feels like eons. All of these various facets combine to create a tense mood and atmosphere. Elephant is dripping with suspense from the first minute of the film because we all know that something is going to happen, we just don’t know what. I personally found myself gripping my hands tightly together every time there was a cut because I was certain this was thee moment that the “Shit would hit the fan.” But Mr. Van Sant made a film that wasn’t about the suspense, because when that moment did come it was muted and normal, like the rest of the film. Mr. Van Sant made a film about normalcy, about the mundane moments in life, no matter how extraordinary they may seem afterward.

I don’t know if I did a good enough job of explaining the treasure that is Elephant. I tried, but like I said at the onset, it is a hard film to do justice for. I can’t even guarantee that you’ll agree with my recommendation because it is that polarizing of a film made by that much of a polarizing director. All I can tell you is that I consider it one of the finest films ever made and that it would be well worth your time to at least give it a chance and do what the film so deftly wants; come to your own conclusions.

Rating:

****

Cheers,
Bill Thompson

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2 responses to “Review: Elephant (2003)

  1. Paul van Emmerik

    Thanks Bill… I very much agree with you and you have described this film perfectly. It is brilliant and Van Sant is quite an artist. Anyone who truly enjoys the art of cinema and tends to be disapointed by the “hollywood” blockbusters should discover this film.

  2. Art is a great word to describe Elephant, because at the end of the day it is an artful look at a now all too common tragedy in American life.

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