There's no lack of films handling the Columbine shooting incident. If you want a juiced-up documentary you need to watch Bowling for Columbine, if you prefer a good rendition in TV-film format Bang Bang You're Dead is your one-stop film. And if you want an artsier take on the events, look no further than Gus van Sant's Elephant. One of van Sant's most memorable films that still stands proud, even years after that fateful day in Columbine.
Gus van Sant rebooted his career around the turn of the century. He turned his back on Hollywood (at least for a while) and started making smaller, more intimate films again. It started with Gerry, Elephant was the second film in his arthouse quadrilogy, followed by Last Days and finally Paranoid Park. It's by far my preferred period in Van Sant's career. Then again I've never been a big fan of Hollywood cinema, certainly not when talking about their dramatic output.
The film's title is often misquoted as a reference to "the elephant in the room" (the obvious thing nobody is talking about). I always found this a little weird because Elephant doesn't put one specific reason forward, instead, it touches on several different explanations without favoring one in particular. As it turns out, the elephant van Sant is talking about is the one from "The Blind Men and Elephant", a parable where different conclusions are drawn based on each blind man touching a different part of the animal. An explanation that makes a lot more sense, since that's pretty much the bottom line of van Sant's Elephant.
Elephant follows a couple of high school students right before the shootings begin. With lots of drawn-out tracking shots and minimal dialogue, van Sant paints a picture of a pretty normal high school (not the ones you usually see in American films), where kids are facing everyday situations. If you're expecting minutely scripted dialogues and clear indicators of what's about to take place, this probably isn't the film for you. In between these segments, we see the shooters, gearing up and getting ready to claim their five minutes of fame.
In line with the rest, van Sant aimed for a realistic-looking film. That's not to say there isn't some visual bravado though. The film is comprised of long, elaborate tracking shots that follow people throughout the school grounds. And because van Sant isn't keeping to a linear chronology, there's one particular moment where three different tracking shots meet up, with no camera in sight. It's a rare treat, but Elephant effectively succeeded in finding advanced technical/visual setups within a very natural visual style.
The soundtrack is up to par. Mostly classical music, but not the nervous, bombastic kind. For example, Für Elise by Beethoven is a rather famous and frequently used piece of music, but it simply fits like a glove here. The same can be said about the rest of the soundtrack. It all adds to the dreamy, trance-like atmosphere and makes for an almost transcendent experience. Again, van Sant manages to be subtle yet expressive at the same time.
If all that isn't enough, Elephant has one more trick up its sleeve. In one final attempt to make the film feel as realistic as possible, van Sant opted to enlist only amateur actors. It works, though, in contrast with the film's audiovisual qualities, the actor's lack of experience is noticeable at times. It's never annoying or distracting though, on the contrary. The performances are spot-on and make it feel like you're hitchhiking on the shoulders of a couple of true-to-life teens.
The contrast between the somewhat tepid first hour and the finale is quite big. Not stylistically, van Sant makes sure to keep the style consistent throughout, but when the actual shooting begins it feels like getting a strong punch in the gut. Again, if you're looking for clear and easy-to-digest explanations you won't find them here, but that just makes the film even scarier. Especially if you consider that what you're watching is based on real-life events.
Elephant hasn't lost any of its impact over time. The Columbine incident represents a bigger message, one that hints at the complexity of human behavior and our inability to fully explain, interpret, and or predict it. To have that packaged in a stylistic tour de force that doesn't overstay its welcome is a blessing. Elephant is one of van Sant's most impressive legacies, a powerhouse film that is tailored to perfection and deserves to be seen and to be treasured.