Elephant

November, 2003, Drama

Here's the kind of movie your Mom might tell you to see; like a big dose of castor oil, you won't like it, but it will be good for you. Gus Van Sant, who wrote and directed this fictionalized account of the student murders at Columbine High School, has created a surrealist morality play that many critics lambasted, (oddly enough) for being amoral. That confuses style with content and technique with purpose; the director's deliberately confronting his audience about this event; your reactions, whatever they are, will only validate his approach.

Van Sant's oeuvre oscillates between small independent features, (My Own Private Idaho) and commercial movies, (Good Will Hunting): to his credit, he's also responsible for Nicole Kidman's finest performance, (as the breathtakingly amoral T.V. weather-lady whose ambition turns deadly in To Die For.)  Here he returns to the art-house genre; using a cast comprised largely of young unknowns, Van Sant traces, in a wonderful conceived elliptical fashion, the frightening events of America's worst school-based homicidal rampage. But in doing so, the director doesn't focus directly on the killers but on their victims, which by some alchemy, inexplicably allows our prior knowledge of the outcome to actually increase the tension. Early in the film, one student leaves school, warning those outside; the audience pleads right along with him--don't go in there. 

The director continues his trademark use of long, often wordless tracking shots, most of which follow the high schoolers from behind, as though the camera is stalking them, providing an unnerving visual preparation for the violence to follow. Interweaving the mundane actions of a half dozen future victims with disconcerting detachment and presenting--Rashomon like--the same action from different points of view, Van Sant comes close to achieving a group hypnosis of his viewers; loping after these students, who navigate the school grounds in slow but fluid movements, the camera presents the visual equivalent of fish in a giant aquarium, the mesmerized audience staring helplessly from outside.

 Van Sant's flat, matter-of-fact presentation wouldn't appear at first to permit much identification with these victims because they're stereotypical; the awkward, self-conscious girl, so embarrassed by her appearance she doesn't dress properly for gym, the hormonal king and queen of the prom, scheming to get out of school for a tryst, the bright shutter-bug whose intellect is of dubious value to his peers, etc. They're ciphers here--apparently no different than the two who calmly review their intended movements just before entering the school to indiscriminately shoot those they randomly encounter.

Van Sant ends his film abruptly, with a shot of the final victims' humiliation in a cafeteria walk-in freezer. The deranged obscenity of this last outrage denies the audience any opportunity to understand why--but then pointlessness is precisely what Van Sant's movie is all about.

 The verdict? Quite a feat; quite a film. But be prepared; it's both disorienting and deeply disturbing, yet richly deserving of its "best film" award from the Cannes Film Festival.

     

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