Elephant (15)

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The ViewLondon Review

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Review byMatthew Turner26/01/2004

Four out of Five stars
Running time: 87 mins

Impressively directed, this is audacious, frustrating and horrifying in equal measure - Van Sant’s film raises plenty of questions but refuses to provide any answers.

Gus Van Sant appears to be going through something of a Bela Tarr phase at the moment – his previous film Gerry featured long, uninterrupted tracking shots, such as those favoured by the Hungarian director, as well as name-checking Tarr in the credits.

With Elephant - which won two prizes at Cannes, including the Palme D’Or for Best Film – Van Sant puts his use of long takes to devastating use, literally following several high school kids around on the day of a Columbine-like massacre.

Elephant In The Corner

The title, apparently refers to ‘the elephant in the corner’ – the problem that everyone chooses to ignore because it’s so huge. It was also the title of Alan Clarke’s film about the troubles in Northern Ireland, another acknowledged influence.

There is no plot, as such. The camera simply follows several high school students on their way to school in the morning, documentary style, with the narrative frequently looping back on itself as the various students cross paths. Until the shooting starts, that is.

The high school students are all impressively played by non-professional actors who use their real names – in other words, by real high school kids, which adds greatly to the realism of the film. (Arguably, the presence of familiar faces such as Matt Molloy –as a teacher - detracts from that same realism). There are no heroes to root for – some characters escape, some don’t – though the odd high school movie cliché slips through anyway in the shape of characters such as a bulimic cheerleader.

The stand-out performance is probably by John Robinson (as a sweet kid dealing with his alcoholic father and a cute girl played by Alicia Miles), although his angelic face, white-blonde hair and yellow t-shirt also help him out in that regard. Other characters include Carrie Finklea and Nathan Tyson as the school couple and Kristen Hicks as a shy girl who’s afraid of her gym teacher.

Nothing For Viewer To Hold On To

It’s an extremely odd film, in that it refuses to give the viewer anything to hold on to. It certainly isn’t exploitative, at least, not in its depiction of violence – people do get killed onscreen but it happens in an emotionless, almost matter-of-fact way that is far more chilling than the equivalent scene in the latest teen schlock horror.

Some sequences work extremely well – for example, towards the end of the film, one of the students walks calmly towards the sound of the gunfire. Because we’ve seen this type of scene before, we confidently expect the character to do something, but Van Sant isn’t interested in this type of film.

As for the two killers (Eric Deulen and Alex Frost), the film toys with several possible ‘explanations’ of their act (they love video games, they’re outsiders, the girls don’t like them and so on), but refuses to provide any actual answers. Though, frankly, it’s the media’s fault. (Discuss).

In short, this is a disturbing, impressively made film that deserves to be seen. Recommended.

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Content updated: 25/07/2014 16:17

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