Written and directed by Gus Van Sant, Elephant chronicles the events of an ordinary day in a fictional high school in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon – a day when two of the students carry out a shooting based in part on the Columbine High School Massacre.
Using new and unprofessional actors who largely keep their own names, the characters are introduced by name and then followed through their day but in a fragmented style that goes over the same events but from multiple points of view. The camera catches up with the students as they walk along corridors, meet up in the cafeteria or the locker room or the library and we hear snatches of frivolous, inane conversations which are often quite funny. Of course we feel tense because we know what’s going to happen and an early scene of the gunmen walking towards the school, before the camera skips off to show another group, is an example of how we can try and piece the fragments together to build up some sort of time line; but what’s extraordinary is the blankness.
Gus Van Sant seems to be subverting all the usual Hollywood modes of behaviour that we have come to expect. There’s no beginning, middle or end, no heroes and no heightened music to prepare us for what’s coming. There’s no attempt at an explanation for the senseless violence, there’s no lingering, nothing is pumped up or overdramatic, and the killers have no remorse, bitterness or any obvious emotion.
I read that the title comes from a documentary made by Alan Clarke in 1989 about Northern Ireland and the ubiquitous violence that is ‘the elephant in the living room’ – here it’s the bedroom that has pictures of elephants which seems a morbid twist on the youth of the killers.
Elephant won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003 and Gus Van Sant was named Best Director. I couldn’t find this on any streaming service so had to watch on DVD, it’s 80 or so minutes long and is incredibly effective in its shockingly stark mundanity.