October 19, 2003


Starring John Robinson and Alex Frost

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The tragic shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado have inspired two very different films. Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine is an impassioned, in-your-face documentary that clearly states its position on American gun culture from the get-go. By contrast, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant is a detached and matter-of-factly told dramatization loosely based on actual events. Although both were award winners at the Cannes International Film Festival, they were probably recognized for their political stance rather than actual artistic merit.

Elephant, which won Palme d’Or and Best Director at Cannes, certainly provokes thought and discussion because of its controversial and disturbing subject matter. But while the film starts off as something truly fascinating, it eventually falters as it desperately tries to assign blame for the brutal shooting rampage.

Van Sant first presents an ordinary day at an Oregon high school with several long takes, each tracking a different student around the campus. During each long take, we see certain earlier scenes play out again from another character’s perspective. Through these segments, the director establishes the vastly different lives led by the various characters. The troubled kids deal with their family problems. The popular kids struggle with peer pressure and petty concerns. The nerdy kids get tormented.

All the kids aim their trash at the back of the classroom where Alex (Alex Frost) sits alone. Shortly thereafter, we find Alex in the cafeteria making a list. Although never directly explained in the film, those who are familiar with the facts of the Columbine shootings know exactly what Alex is up to. The film starts to unravel when it shows the would-be assailants Alex and Eric (Eric Deulen) playing violent video games, watching a documentary on Nazi Germany, ordering guns on the Internet, and making out with each other in the shower. Although these sorts of factors were cited by the news media to explain the real Columbine killers, such explanations seem cheap and desperate when Van Sant offers them here. Perhaps it’s because the film merely stages these in passing rather than exploring any significance they may have.

In the end, Elephant leaves its audience completely cold. The film never really allows the viewers to identify with any of the characters or to invest any feelings toward them before the geeks and the popular kids are killed alike in cold blood. While all of this is disturbing to watch, the film curiously omits the aftermath of the shooting rampage. By the time the credits roll, Van Sant has rehashed all of the speculations without shedding any new light on this tragedy.

© 2003 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.