Gus Van Sant’s ponders school violence and heads the top of his class with ‘Elephant’
Gus Van Sant delivers a haunting, hypnotic, mesmerizing odyssey in Elephant. This fascinating piece of cinema tells you nothing, but shows you everything you need to see about the complex issues of violence and school shootings. Often poetic, and a bit esoteric, in the way Van Sant unravels his mindbender, he suspends his audience in a visual symphony rife with subtle yet artistic shifts in tempo, all of which crescendo toward a dramatic finale that is both stunning and perplexing. It’s one of the best films of the year.
To understand Van Sant’s intention here, it helps to delve into the tale that may have been its inspiration—an ancient Buddhist parable that backs to 2 B.C. The characters: Some blind men and an elephant. The story: The blind men inspect a different aspect of the elephant—ears or tail, tusk or trunk—and become convinced they fully comprehend the true nature of the animal based on the on parts they inspected. No man, however, has absorbed the entire essence of the elephant. It was with this in mind, that Van Sant set out to write and direct his Elephant, because, school shootings, like the fabled elephant, the filmmaker believed there were many different ways of looking at the “beast.” One of them came in the form of British filmmaker Alan Clarke’s Elephant, a 1989 unconventional BBC offering that explored Northern Ireland’s sectarian violence. Although Clarke’s work was titled after the noted phrase about a “problem that is as easy to ignore as an elephant in the living room,” Van Sant originally believed that Clarke’s title held its origin of thought in the ancient Buddhist parable. It wasn’t until he read, much later, and after Clarke had died, that the filmmaker was, in fact, referring to “elephant in the living.” Regardless, Van Sant plowed ahead and his finished product is a winner.
In general, Van Sant’s works never seem to rise to the typical Hollywood PR-blitz. He’s more abstract-filmmaker than commercial-celebrator. Mala Noche turned heads in 1985. In 1987, there was Drugstore Cowboy, followed by 1991’s My Own Private Idaho. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, in 1993, elevated Uma Thurman’s star; he did the same for Nicole Kidman in To Die For in 1995. There was, of course, the critical, award-winning commercial hit, Good Will Hunting (1997), which gave the world Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. (In hindsight, it’s hard to know whether to thank the Van Sant or diss him for leading Affleck and Damon through the show business portals.) Another coup with Finding Forester in 2000 was a brilliant vehicle for Sean Connery. But, while some noted last year’s Gerry was “austere,” critics wondered what in the world Van Sant was doing placing Damon and Casey Affleck in an improvisational existential romp.
Although the mood of Elephant often dips into surreal waters, its shining triumph lies in Van Sant’s ability to present an 81-minute piece of cinema that ebbs and flows naturally. With the exception of Beethoven’s “Piano Sonata No. 14 in C Sharp minor,” an ominous presence when it arrives, this film offers no musical score. The dialogue, what little there is, sounds real, believable. Van Sant does not arrive at any startling conclusions. Instead, he focuses on scenes, these moments that unravel like a ball of yarn—sort of nonlinear, lucid day-in-the-life opus replete with intersecting paths and karmic crossing points.
Central to the story is John (John Robinson), a blonde high school kid who plays caretaker to his irresponsible father in between classes. There’s also Nathan and Carrie (Nathan Tyson and Carrie Finklea), two lovebirds distracted by romance. Eli (Elias McConnell) is a wannabe photographer attempting to capture real life beyond the standard Kodak moment. Gossipers Brittany, Jordan and Nicole (Nicole George) spend more time in the girl’s room studying the finer points of bulimia than any algebraic equation. Lastly, and most significantly, are Alex and Eric (Alex Frost and Eric Deulen), co-conspirators in the inevitable holocaust. Here, Van Sant doesn’t go over the top. The violence seen is never so unbearably graphic. It’s used more as an instrument to show how lives can instantaneously shift from real to surreal.
Van Sant also deals with all hiss events from multiple perspectives. He shows John weaving through his day, and then takes turns illuminating the paths of the other prime players. Eli’s story intersects with John’s, John’s with the thread walked by Alex and Eric, Nathan’s with the gossiping girls, and so on. From time to time, seemingly insignificant characters ultimately become major points of reference. By the time Alex and Eric have unleashed their wrath—that, too, has its own surprising twists—why is not the point. The point, Van Sant reveals, is to simply watch these events play out—every lovely and tragic piece of it.
*** 1/2 (out of four)
With Alex Frost, Eric Duelen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell and Timothy Bottoms. Written and directed by Gus Van Sant. 81 minutes. At the Nick.