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With: John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Alex Frost and Eric Deulen
Written by: Gus Van Sant
Directed by: Gus Van Sant
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content, language, brief sexuality and drug use - all involving teens
Running Time: 81
Date: 05/18/2003

Elephant (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

An 'Elephant' Never to Forget

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Most of us will no more fully understand Gus Van Sant's tenth featurefilm Elephant than we understand the Columbine shootings themselves.Winner of this year's Palme d'Or, it's a deliberately slippery film thatthrives on non-connections and emotional vacuum. Yet it gets its hooksinto you. It makes you feel like you've lost a puzzle piece and you'llnever get it back.

Conceived as a minimalist film like Van Sant's recent Gerry, Van Sant cast a group of non-professional teenagers to play the high schoolers. Most of them are beautiful boys, but he throws in one memorable girl, Michelle (Kristen Hicks), an awkward lump of a thing who can't bring herself to wear shorts to gym class.

Many characters wander through the halls of the school, a lot, for long periods of time. They never go to class, and they rarely connect with any other character, at least not in any real way. In one scene, Elias (Elias McConnell), a young photographer takes a photo of blond John (John Robinson), exchanging small talk while Michelle runs through the background. Van Sant returns to this scene at three different points in the picture from all three points of view.

Snippets of dialogue and sounds clue us in when we've returned to a specific point in time, but from some other side of the room. The structure has a hypnotic effect; we feel we're drifting through this day (days?) without any aim.

But Van Sant punctures it at a specific point when he shows the two shooters (Alex Frost and Eric Deulen) arriving at the school. They brush past John and warn him not to go back inside. "Some heavy s--- is about to go down." It's another 20 minutes before we see them again, but our stomachs have clamped up during all that time.

Finally, during the film's third act -- or where the third act would normally be if this were a narrative, chronological film -- Van Sant introduces us to the killers. They play violent video games (a hilarious fictional game in which the player gets to shoot at Matt Damon and Casey Affleck walking across the desert in Gerry), watch Nazi documentaries and order guns over the internet. While they drive to school, Alex reminds Eric just to "have fun."

Strangely, these boys also look like teen models. It seems unlikely that they wouldn't be extremely popular at any school. (The movie shows one boy being pelted with spitballs, just so we're sure.)

Van Sant chronicles the violence in a strangely dislocated manner. Watching these kids casually shoot their classmates and teachers registers very little effect on us, which is in itself very shocking and disturbing.

One moment pierces the gloom. A good-looking African American boy, Benny (Bennie Dixon), wearing a torn yellow sweatshirt and dreadlocks hears the commotion and calmly strides through the hallway, stopping to help a girl climb out a window. It feels like he ought to be the picture's hero, except for the fact that we've never seen him before. Somehow this new character gives us our only moment of genuine shock during the entire rampage.

Still and all, the final twenty minutes of the film feels somehow wrong. It's as if Van Sant wanted to squeeze our thoughts down to just a few possible ideas, whereas in Gerry, the universe was wide open. As we watch Damon and Affleck trudge endlessly across the desert in search of water and food, we could be thinking about anything and -- literally -- everything.

But you have to admire Van Sant for even attempting Elephant (the title, by the way, refers to the aphorism about an elephant in a living room, and how if we refuse to face a problem long enough we'll no longer see it). On a sheer artistic, aesthetic level, Elephant is one hell of a movie. It's a truly spectacular achievement.

But why is it here? It will no doubt start many passionate discussions, but the overall question still remains, directed at both those boys and at Van Sant: How could you do this to us?

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