Gus van Sant’s film, about the Columbine massacre, is a film that is aware of how disturbing the content and subject matter is, so makes no attempts to dress it up. This makes it more and less powerful at the same time.
Less powerful, in the Hollywood sense, because despite the third act featuring prolonged scenes of shocking violence, it has no hallmarks of the action genre.
More powerful, because in van Sant’s refusal to dress the violence up, and instead present it as what it is, he has created a distinctly powerful picture that resonates long after you have finished watching it, and makes you think about just how disenfranchised us teenagers are.
The film itself is technically fantastic, with excrutiatingly long tracking shots makiing up the majority of the film. We see the beginnings of a school day from the point of view of several people, getting closer to the shooting each time, before finally we see the day from the perspective of the two boys who committed the crime, and the relentlessly cruel, almost passive third act starts, in which we see the shootings themselves, presented in the same way as the sequences that have come before it.
[pullthis]This film has echoes of Michael Haneke, with the anti-violence stance and tracking shots that go on forever, and if it wasn’t for the fact that this was American, it could indeed be a film from the German director[/pullthis]. Funny Games in particular is evoked, as we see the boys spew lines that they have clearly heard a thousand times before in American action films, in which they have been led to believe that violence is a good thing.
This is not an assualt on Hollywood films, nor is it an assault on the youth of today, and indeed the fact that it is not an assault on anything, it offers no explanation for why these people do these things, is what lends it it’s power. Sometimes people commit evil deeds for no particular reason, and the tragedy of this is that we will never know why. You cannot cross analyse these people, you can’t try and explain it, and van Sant makes no effort to.
The teenage characters are true -I speak as a teenager -and I can tell you that they were a pitch perfect representation of teenagers as a whole. It is reported that the performances were heavily improvised, and it shows: there are no ‘characters’ here, just people who go about their day to day business, and then they get shot. Some live, some die.
The build up is excrutiatingly long, but I think the reason for this is to labour the point, that a death is a tragedy, and that people have lives. In this sense, it is the opposite of any other ‘going on a gun rampage’ picture, because in here we see that the people they shoot are actual people, and not pieces of cannon fodder. In this sense, conveying the tragedy of the shooting, van Sant should be commended.
Critics of the film have said that it is too slow: to this, I say that this is the point. They also say that there is no character development, and this, I also say, is the point. People aren’t going to change over the period of one day, are they? In a film they might, but this is not a film in the traditional sense. At the end of the day, they have undergone no real transformation. The killers were always going to kill, and everyone else was always going to go about their everyday business. These people who are put up on screen are people, and this is why the film is so powerful.
There is a moment, towards the end of Elephant that sums up everything that has come before it. We see a character, called Benny (a reference to Haneke’s Benny’s Video, perhaps?) who makes his way towards the killer. He has been given a title card, introducing his name. We expect him to halt the killer and emerge as the hero. In a normal film, this would be the case. But instead, he disrupts the killer as he is spewing cliched lines at the principal of the school. He is shot. The end. The camera doesn’t linger over his body, and he doesn’t go down in slow-motion. He dies. When people are shot, they die, and when people die, it is a tragedy. This is the message van Sant gives, and he does it flawlessly.