Gus Van Sant’s latest film, Elephant, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last spring despite vociferous denunciations from certain American critics. With its U.S. release, it’s certain to be one of the most talked-about and controversial films of the year. The controversy might be its selling point, but the movie has more than enough credibility to justify the hype.
The story is an obvious adaptation of the Columbine shootings, despite its Portland, Oregon setting. The movie opens on the fateful morning, following various students as they wander the school’s grounds. One blond boy is late because his father was too drunk to drive him to school. Another teen takes portraits of various students and heads to the darkroom to develop his photos. A geeky girl with glasses gets taunted in gym and takes refuge in her library work. An attractive couple talks obliquely about a doctor’s “appointment” scheduled for that afternoon.
These first 50 minutes are absorbing, as Van Sant introduces his characters. He films with long Steadicam tracking shots that his hero Bela Tarr would be proud of. Van Sant also uses the Academy ratio to powerful effect, but this doesn’t feel like a video shoot. His use of fall colors is gorgeous, and he returns to the clouds of Gerry for some poignant credit sequences. He also structures the film in interesting ways, folding time back on itself on numerous occasions, creating connections between the characters and building tension as the tragedy draws closer. The lonely, understated music adds to the intensity of the story.
The final half-hour, when the film shifts its focus to the killers and then the killings, is not nearly as strong. The film’s many detractors make a point when they argue these reels feel pornographic. Nonetheless, it’s useful to see this section in relationship to Truman Capote’s landmark work In Cold Blood, in which Capote told a gruesome story of robbery and killing in America’s heartland, but largely from the killer’s point of view. The stark objectivity, refusing to assign blame or explain actions, is disconcerting but powerful. Capote’s homoeroticism finds its way into Elephant as well, with an especially provocative shower sequence. Despite these flaws, Elephant is a striking film and one that will likely force audiences to re-examine how they feel about Columbine.