Worth A Look: 28.92%
Just Average: 4.82%
Pretty Crappy: 8.43%
7 reviews, 41 user ratings
by David Hollands
Working from his own screenplay, Van Sant has created a film that is frightening to watch. It takes the taboo subject of violent High School students and treats it with respect.The movie has no linear plot; we follow key students around the school, seeing each day through their points of view. Some meet girlfriends, some cry silently because of parental problems, and some are planning the slaughter of every student in the school. Each different storyline collides come the film's conclusion in a powerhouse finale.
"A masterpiece. Period."
I don't take well to art films, being that I usually find them pretentious, cold, or boring as Hell. Director Van Sant has used a cinematic style that would immediately make one question whether he's simply lost all connection with his audience. Much of the film involves following students in ten-minute takes as they walk about the High School. I would usually find this kind of style to indicate an air of self-importance that the filmmakers have of their own film. Surprisingly, Gus Van Sant's style here gives off absolutely no air of self-importance. He is able to use his long takes here to great effect. As much filmmaking gusto as there is on display here, Van Sant always puts his characters above the visuals. Thus, his style is really only there to support the characters, as well as being used to subtly build suspense.
Van Sant is able to bring forth tension like a true master. With each passing visual, we can tell that the film is building to something. That below the surface of this seemingly bland world, something sinister lurks. While we follow students around the school, Van Sant uses repetition constantly, connecting each different storyline together while never worrying about the linear mechanics of film. While we are following one character, another character from a different storyline will sometimes show up. In the first five minutes of the film, Van Sant introduces the soon-to-be killers. For the next seventy minutes, we notice certain details that are repeated while following each character. Stuff like seeing a character about to interact with the killers, an event that was previously shown to us, almost out of frame in the background while we follow another character. These visual repetitions are used throughout, and they are Van Sant's main form of building suspense.
Van Sant's visuals themselves are incredible. Taking a page from filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, this time with emotion, Van Sant creates visuals that are spellbinding. The High School is one that has long stretches of cold white-painted walls, giving the entire location a bland feeling. The only other primary colours that show up are those of the various students' clothing. Other sections here are bathed in dark, shadow-filled areas where the lights can't seem to reach. Shots are incredibly composed, yet never too perfect as to become cold and mechanical. Van Sant allows a few jerks or slight lighting imperfections to mare a few shots, giving this film the appearance of real life.
As anyone most likely knows, when one is walking down a school hallway, or any kind of hallway for that matter, anyone else in that hallway is usually seen from the back. By using the many shots from the back, Van Sant has put the audience directly in the movie with the characters. This creates a familiarity with what's happening onscreen, and it is because of this that the scenes we watch never seem boring, and never appear to go on for too long. Van Sant is also wise to not constantly show the characters from the back, as he knows that this will soon make the audience loose interest, no matter how familiar the scenes seem. Therefore, we are able to see the characters' faces, especially at times when they are in peril. We also mostly see the foreground completely out of focus, as if Van Sant is showing that those in the movie are still growing, still needing more of life before they can fully see it. Being that the audience knows the outcome of the film, this effect is haunting; we feel the loss whenever a character we've watched bites the dust. This effect is also used when the killers begin picking off victims...and the fact that the victims are hardly in focus at all shows just how far gone these two students have become.
When dealing with the subject of what makes a killer, certain cliches come into play. Usually, killers often live in poor neighbourhoods, they have parents who neglected them, they play violent videogames and watch violent movies. I was fearful that these same cliches would show up here. Thankfully, Van Sant hardly uses these cliches at all. One of the killers lives in a nice house. He has parents who don't treat him badly, he has a room filled not with posters of shock rockers and nazi symbols but with things like serene drawings and the like. One wouldn't guess at all that he would be a killer.
At one point, however, the characters do watch a Nazi documentary and play a violent videogame. Van Sant never presents these scenes as if they are the definitive answer. In fact, there are quite a few suggestions that Van Sant throws to the audience to pander over, and yet he never forces them, instead allowing the audience to make up their own minds. As an example, during the scene in which the kids watch the Nazi documentary, they appear to only be watching it out of interest (one of the two doesn't recognise Hitler). In the background of the shot, we see a gun being delivered to the houses of the students, the mailman who eventually comes to the door hardly batting an eye at the kids accepting the purchase. Before this, we saw the two purchasing this gun quite easily off the Internet.
Van Sant's screenplay creates a series of teenage characters that are cliched. We have a photographer hopeful, the slightly chubby girl, the boy whose troubles at home make him sad each day, a rather standard movie trio of slightly dumb bulimics, and the football jock and his girlfriend. What makes the difference here is in the way they are presented. Dialogue rings true with each character. Their actions never extend into the realm of been there done that. Instead, Van Sant shows the humanity beneath the cliche, changing the characters to likable familiarities.
The final act of the movie involves the killers bursting out and opening fire. They are the type who have no remorse. They treat the whole thing as if it is fun. I have a theory as to what Van Sant is saying, so here it goes. I think Van Sant is showing us that no matter how much we try to prevent violence in society, that it will always exist, simply because human nature allows it to exist. There are things in the film that allow the violence to occur, such as the availability of guns in North American society, one of the kids who will end up becoming a killer because of being randomly picked by the football jock as target practice for a gooey projectile, and by the film's conclusion, pure and simple revenge. It's a telling thing to see how easily the violent and sadistic side of a human being can emerge so easily, and it's also a disturbing thing to watch. That this movie shows that through unblinking eyes is what makes it something of a rather difficult film to sit through.
Everything would have fallen apart had the conclusion been presented in any kind of sensationalistic manner. Van Sant has decided to go for a smooth style when capturing the violence, showing us its harshness, yet also having compassion for the viewer in not showing us the worst of it. During this ten-minute conclusion, there is no music. Any character that we think may become a hero is quickly dispatched as quickly as one can swat a fly. Van Sant captures how quickly and simply a life can be taken, and how cruel the taking can be. The fact that the characters are no more than sixteen to eighteen years old, hardly having reached the prime of life, shows just how far Van Sant is willing to take things. Saccharine music never intrudes when someone dies, nor is a cheap visual employed to pull audience reactions at the sight of death. Van Sant shoots it as he shot the first two acts of the film, in a very calm style that only shows, yet never tells. This causes the violence to be much more heartbreaking, because we see the terrifying situation as if we were taking part in it.
Van Sant edited the film himself, and at eighty-five minutes, there is never a dull moment. Scenes don't cut from one to the next; they flow, almost as if the movie is a tone poem. Van Sant opens and closes this movie with images of clouds, and they couldn't be a more fantastic way to open and close the film. As we watch, clouds gather as day turns to night in a spectacular title sequence. At another point, we watch the sky for a full two minutes as the clear is covered over by darkness. We then hear thunder, and rain begins to fall. That may seem like quite a nauseating attempt at visual poetry, yet Van Sant does it surprisingly well here. It's one of the best moments in the film, as the forming storm perfectly mirrors the storm building within the two students who are planning the deaths of everyone in their school.
The music is a mixture of Ludwig Van Beethoven and an original score comprised entirely of background noise and piercing high notes that sound like sirens. It makes for an incredible experience, the Moonlight Sonata giving a haunted effect. We see how beautiful everyday images can be, and the scenes are given a frightening foreshadowing by the intense sadness inherent in the music. The sound design is also brilliant. One is constantly immersed in sounds that are completely natural. This may be the best film to capture the sounds of a high school. Every little detail, from the squeaking of the floor as people walk, to a door making a natural open/close sound for once is captured exquisitely. The gunshots make an intense, yet compressed sound that is extremely realistic. I can't completely comment on the realism, as I've never heard a real gun fired in my life (and hope to never hear one at all), although the effect certainly packs quite the visceral punch.
The performances of everyone involved are excellent. Van Sant cast actors for the roles of the adults, and picked out actual High School students to play the students in the film. This paid off, as not only do the characters appear their age for once, but the performances are natural. When characters interact, it feels real. A particular standout is Alex Frost playing the one who plans the gun massacre. He's an outstanding performer, as he brings an incredible sense of loss to his role. We watch helplessly as he goes from a slightly out-there guy to a cold-blooded killing machine, and Frost handles it without going into over the top. Frost also makes the film's end as powerful as it is. While the borderline sadistic pull-out shot Van Sant employs, is absolutely brilliant, Frost must deliver the final haunting words, and he does so with a cold menace made even more frightening by the fact that we clearly see he is enjoying himself as he carries out his final act of violence.Elephant is a shocking, horrifying, brutal, and heartbreaking dramatizing of an outburst of violence. It is made all the more powerful by the fact that it never seems like a dramatisation. Van Sant's direction is incredible, the subtleties are breathtaking, the conclusion is horrific and unflinchingly intense, and the performances are a breath of fresh air. With all these perfect elements, Elephant stands as the best film I've seen in a long while, as well as 2003's perfect film.
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originally posted: 01/04/05 22:28:18
|OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Vancouver Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Starz Denver Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.