Gus Van Sant’s weird meditation on the Columbine Massacre is unlike any of the other films on the list, feeling more like a documentary than a straight narrative up until the point that the massacre occurs. Indeed, it’s questionable if it really is about Columbine or rather just about being a kid in America at a really specific point in time, whilst the inevitable massacre (this is not a film that you can watch blindly, it’s important to know where it will eventually head before you begin) whilst not being an after-thought (in retrospect the film clearly lays down the fact that this is going to happen) feels like one. Van Sant could just be making a documentary about life in a typical American school that just happened to take a horrific turn of events. Unlike Bowling for Columbine (the only other film that comes to mind that approaches the subject in a thoughtful way, although that veers to near to sensationalism for my liking at times) there is no wider picture, the story doesn’t need to be put into context for the horrifying truth to be seen.
It’s not a grim experience (nor is it a cheerful one, this does not in any way glamorize what is about to happen), the whole fill is suffused with a dreamlike presence, characters drift in and out of the camera in a naturalistic fashion (heightening the documentary feel of the film), with snatches of conversation heard as the camera glides past. Strangely, despite this approach the film is often beautiful to look at, employing a similar “golden hour” approach that Malick and Kubrick used on much more romantic subjects. The lack of music means that the natural sounds of the spaces (once again, location shooting triumphs over anything that could be constructed in a studio) is brought to the fore, forcing you to listen properly to the film rather than the dialogue. Elephant is a surprising film in more than one way.
The naturalistic approach has an interesting side effect for an American film, the teachers are shown as neither monsters nor saints, just honest adults trying to guide a bunch of kids through each day in as harmless a manner as possible. Similarly none of the kids fall into the standard tropes of the school genre, the jock (such as he exists) is possibly the most sensitive of all the characters, the awkward girl is shown as having as many friends as everyone else. There is the small clique of girls that make fun of everyone else, but they’re still as insecure and unsure of themselves as everyone else underneath. Van Sant pulls that rare trick of making kids feel like kids, emotionally this is even more important, it makes the ending all the more painful. Van Sant doesn’t twist our emotions, he lets kids playing at being themselves (with two obvious exceptions) appeal to our basic human need to find goodness. Everyone here is a human being, rather than a collection of literary devices.
Inevitably the massacre dominates the post viewing experience. Van Sant offers no explanation other than disaffected youth for the violence – the familiar arguments of video game violence, music and the ease of access to guns are all mentioned in passing, but one gets the sense that as all of the kids have access to that then any of them could become the killers that stalk the halls at the end of the film. Certainly the two responsible are shown to have a more comfortable life than some of their peers – could Van Sant be arguing that outside influences play little part in the actions that some choose to undertake? Or is the truth that Van Sant doesn’t care for the reasons, the act itself is even more horrifying when there is no explanation?
Van Sant’s low key approach extends to the massacre itself. The fatal shots often occur off camera or at a distance, the camera a static dispassionate viewer. It’s here that one of the rarities of modern film becomes more evident – Elephant has no soundtrack to speak of, the snippets of music we hear are often incidental to the action itself, caught in camera as it were. The final shots occur completely out of sight, we are unsure as to who their victims are, although heartbreakingly the answer at this stage is irrelevant, the perpetrators are as much victims.
Elephant (the title is meaningless in the context of the film – although it could possibly allude to the elephant in the room that no one was talking about at the time) treads that strange line between art and mainstream, it’s not a film designed to draw in crowds (at times it’s a little too cold and emotionless) but neither is it purely for the intellectual crowd. The film approaches an important, difficult subject and presents the narrative rather than the explanation. It focuses neither on the killers nor those responsible for piecing together the event afterwards. Elephant is just about a single day in a normal school that takes a horrible turn for the worse, and that’s what makes it all the more disturbing.
Elephant makes the list as that rare thing, a true modern horror – devoid of the supernatural and deriving its horror from modern life. It’s hard to recommend it, but it’s difficult to argue that it isn’t one of the best films of the last decade, brave not only in its subject matter but also the approach it takes to telling the story. Approach with caution, once seen it’s difficult to forget.