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Elephant
USA 2003
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Running time 82 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Ruth Williams
4 stars


Synopsis: It’s a perfect autumn day at am average secondary school in Portland Oregon. John leaves his car keys at the office so his brother can drive their drunken father back home. Elias asks a punk couple he comes across in the park if he can take some photos for his portfolio. Nate finishes football training and goes off to meet his girlfriend, Carrie, for lunch. Michelle escapes ridicule in a sports class by rushing to her job in the library reshelving books. For the students it is a day like any other day - that is, until their paths cross Alex and Eric.

Gus Van Sant is to be commended for being able to portray adolescence with empathy and a lack of judgement that allows an audience to make its own observations. With its documentary-like lack of editing and focus on the rituals and routine of school life Elephant is filmed in such a way that we are from the outset placed within the world of its group of secondary school students. The majority of the actors were chosen from local secondary schools and most of the dialogue was improvised. Rather than impose what he thought teenagers would say and how they would react, Van Sant asked them to look into their own lives and bring that to their performance. To add to the authentic feel of the film, most of the students used their own names.

It doesn’t take long to become accustomed to the long takes and the comparative lack of action. As the camera follows the students slowly through the corridors of the school, you begin to feel that you could be playing a video game, pushing a few buttons on the hand control to choose your target. Yet the truly disturbing feature of the film is the way in which everything that is happening is part of the mix. From three girlfriends talking of shopping and suspicious mothers to Alex and Eric casually laying out their devastating plan, as the story unfolds from the different points of view of the various students, it starts to feel like time has stood still and that there is no escape from what fate has in store.

The title refers to the well-known parable in which several blind men grasp different parts of an elephant, each coming up with a different theory as to what they have found. Whilst one can’t help but watch for possible clues as to how these young men could consider carrying out such a horrific act with so little misgiving, Van Sant’s intention was not to try to explain why such events occur, but to capture the whole picture of the event itself. Elephant is designed to leave us asking the difficult questions. How about we start with this one. In an increasingly violent world, why are we at all surprised that violence seems like the only answer?

 

 

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