You’ve probably heard of a little film called Elephant. Yes, that Elephant. The one about the school shooting. Yes, the one that came out a few years after Columbine. Indeed, this film was originally supposed to be about Columbine, but Gus Van Sant opted to instead go the purely fictional route, and thus this film is technically only “inspired by” the infamous massacre. Maybe the fact that the Columbine massacre is being associated with the word “inspiring” might be a little troubling to some, especially that they decide to make a film about it. You could wonder if it goes the pure tragedy route, or maybe the ‘fallen hero’ route, or even the ‘sympathy for the anti-hero’ route. Well, Van Sant’s film doesn’t opt for any of those. Really, it doesn’t opt for anything.
This is a film that largely escapes plot summarization, except of the highest examples of brevity: it is a day in the life of students at a school, who end up being part of a school shooting. Well, mostly a day; Van Sant selectively jumps forward and backward in time without telling us, like for instance when we jump back a week or so to see the perpetrators ordering their guns, the guns arriving, and them going over their plan for maximum carnage, before we abruptly cut back to the present day of the actual shooting. We also jump from character to character, each helpfully introduced with a title card, in an apparent attempt to expand upon the lives and characters of the victims to garner more sympathy when (or if) they are killed… except it doesn’t, which I’ll get to in the closer. Van Sant, especially so in this film, seems to be a big fan of long tracking shots; damn near every shot in this film is lengthy, and follows a character or group of characters through multiple rooms and hallways until the film decides it wants to show us someone or something else. The word dream-like has been bandied about quite often in regards to this film’s cinematography, and I can see that comparison. It was well directed, I will definitely give it that (especially when we see the same moment from different characters’ perspectives; everything is planned out and syncs up well), and not only did Van Sant win the Palme d’Or with this, the Cannes jury also gave him the Best Director prize, which is a true sign of the level of his accomplishment here.
Here’s the thing, though, about Elephant: it goes for the purely documentarian approach. That’s all well and good, except this is a fictional film; while the end product has us watching the events as if we are really there in the school, it offers no bend or tilt or interpretation of how we are supposed to feel about certain characters or events, and instead leaves everything (yes, everything) completely open to interpretation. Again, that would be fine, except it doesn’t even give us a jumping off or starting point. The best analogy I could give would be how water boils and freezes; it takes tiny little bumps or snags or imperfections to start the process, which then spreads out until all the water is boiling or frozen. Elephant is essentially boiling or freezing water without the imperfections necessary to kickstart the convection; you just sit there, expecting something to be happening, but nothing does, except with this film, instead of water, the something that should be happening is feeling, or emotion, or sympathy, or empathy, or consideration of the events transpiring, or anything really. It’s just… empty. This was well done, but it skimmed right off the surface of my emotions, making nary a splash or ripple. I guess that’s something I’ve come to expect from a film, and in Elephant’s case, it wasn’t that it didn’t deliver, it was that it ended up delivering… nothing.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10