There was, inevitably, going to be a feature film take on the Columbine massacre and in Gus Van Sants ELEPHANT, we have one that does not exploit the tragedy with cheap attempts to tug on our heartstrings with cliché sentiment. Instead, he offers rich and disconcerting food for thought with a terrifying vision of teen life that is equal parts tedium and angst looking for a way to express itself and not having the tools to do so.
He goes beyond the simple explanation of high school cliques and the resentments and bullying nursed in silence by those not considered cool. Cliques are an old story. Van Sant posits that the rage that now expresses itself with violence is a symptom of something much more sinister, the alienation, the disaffected and disjointed relationship that a generation without deep emotional attachments or verbal acuity has with the world at large.
It begins with a scene that seems idyllic at first glance. A perfect autumn day, leaves a riot of color, and an overhead shot of a car driving along. Then the car swerves, sideswipes another car and stops. The shot changes to two people in the car, one driving drunk and his teenage son forcing him to let him drive instead. And there, in a nutshell, is the problem Van Sant will explore with poetry and power.
The story is told episodically, but not chronologically. Each of the kids, played by non-professionals, are introduced and we follow them through their day until the shooting begins. It plays like a police report or the way the media will re-tell the story, but Van Sant used the camera to go deeper. Throughout the film, as we follow different students during the fatal day, the lens is in deep focus with its wide shots of people engulfed in space walking down seemingly endless,impersonally sterile halls on their way to places that dont excite them from other places that they are neither relieved nor sad to leave. The effect is like watching rats in a maze, or ants on an anthill. Conversations consist of a few mumbled words. Family is either absent or annoying. The other adults are preoccupied or uninterested or ineffectual. A delivery man lets the shooters sign for the guns theyve ordered. Team bulimia in the girls bathroom doesnt warrant notice, much less a raised eyebrow. The principal doesnt care that a kid is late because of a father who is drunk before lunchtime. Later, when that kid is alone, tears stream down his cheeks but no other emotion registers on the stone face. Another student asks if somethings bad and the response it I dont know and the other student drifts off. There is no guidance, no structure, he, like his peers is adrift, numb.
The shooters are no different, except for their fascination with guns and violence. They hang out together, but are detached, barely exchanging a few words. They sit together, one reading, one playing the piano. As they go about spewing bullets, the detachment remains the same. There is neither elation or fear or anger. Even as one corners the principal, there is no expression. Before going leaving home for the kill, one reminds the other to have fun, but on the ride to the school, there is silence between them. The killings take place at the end of the film. We know it will happen, but are not prepared for the quotidienne quality of the acts themselves. Bullets fly through bodies with amazing force, people fall. The camera registers it with the same dispassion that it followed these same kids earlier.
It is, of course, that lack of emotion that chills to the bone. It is as though they are so desperate to feel anything more than the unpopularity that drives them, and with a school system and a family that has failed them, there is nothing left for them but blood and even that is not enough.
ELEPHANT is poetic in it depiction of a danse macabre, and it is ruthless in its dissection of it. There is no ameliorating soundtrack except the piano solo of melancholy works by Beethoven played by one of the shooters that repeats sporadically. There are only the random, terse conversations and the white noise of silence that follows each kid in the movie. The coup de grace is an ironic class discussion, the closest thing to meaningful interaction to be found short of the murders. The topic is whether or not you can tell if a person is gay just by looking. The topic should have been, both in the classroom and elsewhere, can you tell if a person is in trouble just by looking. The answer is, if only someone had. Like the proverbial elephant in the room that everyone sees but no one mentions, it was hard to miss.