Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant”: A Disturbing, Troubling Work of Art

The other night I watched Gus Van Sant’s human drama about a group of teenagers who all end up involved in a mass school shooting the likes of the Columbine massacre. It is not your usual film about such events, and is filmed in a unique Van Sant style that sets it clearly apart from the rest.

Winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes, and receiving various reviews on both ends of the scale from positive to negative, it is no doubt a well-done, interesting film.

But it’s certainly not easy to watch, for various reasons. It’s only 80 minutes long, but the first 50 or so is comprised of little more than long tracking shots which introduce and follow our characters through high school as the day progresses. Van Sant does this very impressively, turning what would normally be a boring, unoriginal story into a riveting story that is admirable in its production.

I have a secret love for tracking shots, and some of my favourites are in here. It’s a character study the way a character study should be filmed. We follow the characters for a long time, analysing the various aspects of their routine day, while the camera looks unflinchingly onward. In one scene, we follow a group of teenage girls as they gossip, chat, go to eat their lunch, and then in a scarily normal manner, go into the bathroom and force-vomit together. We know things like this happen, but never before has it been presented like Gus Van Sant has.

Then we meet the shooters: two young men with a fascination for guns and Hitler. But what’s really striking is how calm, collected, untroubled and unphased they are. They seem like two perfectly content young men; but the insane often are. Their killing spree is rampant and merciless. Any moment in the film where it seems like things are going to be okay is ruined by the gunmen. Van Sant is doing what Michael Haneke did in Funny Games: he is presenting violence without purpose; simple violence, and the reason is to point out the true senselessness in violence. Violence happens, and the movies often cover things up by giving the film a happy ending. The ending to this film is not happy at all, quite the opposite, though I won’t spoil it.

This is the third film I’ve seen from Gus Van Sant, after Good Will Hunting and the Psycho remake, and its been the first that I’ve really, truly respected. I like the movies that are brutal and unflinching in their honesty; I don’t like films that cover up the truth with sappy endings and clichés. Gus Van Sant has made a film to be commended, and a truly remarkable work of art.

I’ll finish by quoting something that Roger Ebert said when he got the chance to meet Van Sant. He asked him, “Why? Why did you do that awful Psycho remake?” Van Sant casually replied: “So no one else would have to.”

Elephant: My Rating: 8/10

Leave a comment with what you thought of the movie. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

Thanks for reading.

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About Tyler

Patient observer of all things film and music, from Béla Tarr to Boards of Canada. Foul mouthed and clinging to the edge of sanity.

Posted on May 17, 2011, in Movie Reviews, Movies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. This was a really fantastic movie. I appreciated the style that this was filmed in, and the characters were, for lack of a better phrase, phenomenally portrayed. I’ve seen Alex Frost (one of the shooters) in a comedy, but could not get his performance as Alex out of my head. His brooding and stalking of the students at the school was unsettling. It felt painful witnessing the eventual outcome, particularly with the photographer and that poor nerdy girl.

    I’m really glad you were Freshly Pressed yesterday! You have a new fan!

    • Unsettling? It was downright terrifying. I got chills, and I don’t normally get chills. Especially considering this isn’t a horror film. You could easily call it a true story and not be exaggerating.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. I loved this movie. Along with Bang Bang You’re Dead, this is a movie that all parents need to see. Nothing speaks more honestly about the reality and the brewing hatred that exists in many high school students.

    • Completely agree. And the kids at the schools are so nonchalant about it, just like Gus Van Sant does with his filming and cinematography. Sweeping shots which waltz pass various atrocious acts. One shot that’s really striking is of that tall, black football player. We see him in so many shots, and Van Sant establishes to the audience his story might be of importance before finally, he is quickly shot dead. It’s so crazy, but realistic.

  3. I was horrified and captivated by this movie; your review is dead-on. The film was as compelling as it was repelling. I enjoyed your post, so I posted a link to your blog on mine. I read through several of your other posts and have enjoyed them all.

  4. Try the Drugstore Cowboy next- Gus Van Sant’s greatest film in my opinion.

  1. Pingback: this is a REALLY GOOD BLOG. « my favorite color is orange

  2. Pingback: Review: Gus van Sant’s “Gerry” « Southern Vision: A Blog About Movies

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