The school shooting in Elephant is fictional, but one clearly inspired by the Columbine case. Van Sant refuses to provide a tidy explanation for such violent outbreaks, but urges viewers to find meaning in the film's implications, making Elephant both vague and provocative, self-important yet accomplished.
Winner of Best Director and Golden Palm at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Elephant has a format strangely similar to the movie Slacker. There are no protagonists, but Van Sant picks seemingly random students to trail around a high school campus in Portland, Ore. One of them, John (John Robinson), wanders from the principal's office, chats with friends in the corridors and makes his way outside -- just as a pair of other boys come striding in, wearing camouflage gear and toting ominous bags.
Then the film doubles back on itself, and we follow other students without knowing what time it is. Elephant puts the audience in a combined state of tension and tedium in which nothing eventful happens for long stretches, but we're constantly braced for gunshots. Van Sant seems inspired by the kind of horror movie where you expect a slasher to leap out at any time. Movies usually emphasize the crowdedness of schools, yet Elephant depicts a place of isolation, with spacious, sparsely populated hallways.
The title evokes both the idea of the elephant in the room that nobody will talk about and the parable of the blind men who touch an elephant and can identify it only by consensus. Van Sant's Elephant doesn't reveal motivations behind the shooting, but we're meant to diagnose them by what the film does offer us.
We see an irresponsible parent, as John's alcoholic father (Timothy Bottoms) can scarcely care for himself, let alone his child. We see bullying, as bespectacled, body-conscious Michelle (Kristen Hicks) scurries through the school with the manner of a person turned middle-aged before her time. We even catch a glimpse of bulimia, as three chatty airheads pick at their cafeteria meals, then go to the bathroom for matter-of-fact vomiting.
And we flash further back to see moments from the home lives of future shooters Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen), who play violent video games, watch Nazi documentaries and receive an assault rifle in the mail. Yet they're not presented as simple "psychos." Eric admits that he's never kissed anyone, while Alex beautifully plays Beethoven's Fur Elise, then makes a mistake and bizarrely gives the finger to the sheet music. Alex chillingly tells Eric, "Most importantly, have fun, man," before they arrive at the school with their weapons.
Elephant's young actors are mostly amateurs using their real first names and improvising their own dialogue, and they prove comfortable and credible. They're generally bright, but not in a quippy, artificial way, and they remind us how the troubled teens provided the most graceful notes in Van Sant's To Die For.
Elephant could be a companion to Ben Coccio's Zero Day, another school shooting film that withholds clear answers. Zero Day is more dramatically satisfying than Elephant, yet less lyrical. Van Sant's refusal to find the reasons behind such massacres feels less like an artistic evasion than a challenge to the audience. It's up to us to figure them out, and lives might be at stake.