The review of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant

A review of Gus Van Sant’s drama about the Columbine school massacre, the Elephant.

Gus Van Sant’s drama, the Elephant radically divided the critics when it was presented eight years ago. Some of them loved it, and called the film a true masterpiece. Even more were at a loss to understand how this movie could have won awards at the Cannes Film Festival. The film’s story was partly based upon actual event: in 1999, two students cold-heartedly killed twelve others and a teacher in a Columbine high school shooting, before committing suicide.

The producing company must have been in an ecstasy of joy when Van Sant first came up with the idea of making an adaptation of the Columbine tragedy, because the subject matter guaranteed the success of the film. Controversial films are often successful from financial viewpoint. Taboo-films influence us easily. Even if somebody does not agree with the director’s viewpoint and attacks the ideology of it, he or she is affected in some way, and buys the movie-ticket for the disputed film. A typical example of this is the Romanian „abortion film”, the 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. The subject matter grabbed the attention of a considerable number of people.

Van Sant could have hoped this sort of scandal and success film when he produced a film about a school massacre. He could have chosen the ordinary way of making a high-budget Hollywood production, employing stars in the main roles, filling the movie with spectacular scenes. Van Sant chose a more difficult, but from the artistic aspect, a more exciting way.

In the first half of the film, an ordinary high school day goes on. Knowing the trailer and the story of the actual event, the viewer can expect that we are going to see how the two boys became anti-social. However, we cannot see this process. It was my first real disappointment in the film.

Instead of that, several students are shown as they talk to their friends, wander around the school, do their daily routine. Although this kind of portrayal of an ordinary school day is quite realistic, but after a while it may become frustrating.

The film does not really try to answer the moral questions. However, in the worst scene of the film, it tries to suggest in an awfully demagogue way that the tragedy must have happened due to the violent computer games (in this particular scenes the two boys order weapons on the Internet right after playing ont he computer).

The lack of having a linear narrative structure may lead to confusion in this film, although it makes some scenes more interesting.  Van Sant seems to be addicted to long tracking shots. About ten characters are shown in long tracking shots from behind, which is again controversial, since one can easily get bored with watching people’s back while walking from one place to another.

The acting in the movie is not remarkable. The screenplay did not give the real chance to the actors to show their abilities. The dialogues are simple, and for a long while the characters are shown from behind.

One may say that the plot of the Elephant is boring, and the critics overrate it, but I personally have to admit that I find the atmosphere of the film just as unique as depressing. The tension and some kind of nervous depression cover the whole film as the children keep walking down the empty hallways. The choice of music (Beethoven) is perfect, fits to the film’s atmosphere.

On the whole, I think that the Elephant is not as fabulous as many critics think. It is definitely worth of watching, but in this subject I would rather recommend Michael Moore’s documentary, the  Bowling for Columbine. Moore’s film examines the subject in a more detailed way in a broader socio-political context.


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