Elephant. Is it a morally reprehensible, exploitative misstep? Or is it a thought-provoking meditation on the violence perpetrated by young people like the Columbine shooters? Elephant’s a for-it-or-against-it kind of movie that seems to only prompt one of the two above responses (for good reason). But I’m somewhere in the middle; I believe the approach to the material has potential. But Van Sant’s execution tends towards two contrasting modes (a) art-house obliqueness and (b) after school special simplisticness, both of which miss their marks. In regards to the former mode, watching a kid develop photographs for ten minutes seems to be saying something, but what? I extend this question to all the film’s interminable digressions. In regards to latter mode, Van Sant’s characterizations are too straightforward, too mired in clichés to elicit any empathy. The sequence of Brittany, Jordan, and Nicole walking into the cafeteria, chatting over a brief lunch, and then retreating to the bathroom to chuck it up is so to-the-point and oversimplified it feels more like cruel parody than naturalism- it doesn’t help that the actors are non-professionals (it shows) and their dialogue is improvised (it shows).
However, I think Van Sant found the right approach to the scenes of Alex and Eric preparing for their horrific act. Here, the camera’s apathy is most effective. It watches the pair play violent computer games, watch Nazi documentaries, express what could be latent homosexuality (or perhaps just desperation) in the shower, and get picked on with the same detachment with which it watched Nathan meander from the football field to the classroom. The objectivity is at once unsettling as the film doesn’t seem to pass judgment on their actions and inquisitive, wondering whether these events and behaviors caused the act rather than firmly positing that they did. Elephant’s at its best when it suggests we’ll never know why two boys decided to shoot up their school. Asking “Why?” after tragedies as mysterious as these is as futile as- like the title suggests- blind men describing an elephant.
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