- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

On the heels of last year’s existential antidrama “Gerry,” “Elephant” once again pairs writer-director Gus Van Sant and cinematographer Harris Savides.

Where “Gerry” followed two hikers lost in the desert, “Elephant,” the big winner at Cannes this year, trails a collection of high schoolers in suburban Portland, Ore., on a relentlessly ordinary day that builds slowly but urgently to a Columbine-inspired massacre.

Again, Mr. Van Sant and Mr. Savides are about the business of redefining just what it is that movies should do. To call “Elephant” a realistic movie is to miss its point. It is highly stylized. It is as pushy and mannered as moviemaking can be without benefit of sex or violence or computer-generated effects.

At the same time, it spurns the rules of storytelling: basic narrative demands such as who, what, when and where. And what’s most absent here: why.

Mr. Van Sant, who won the best-director award at Cannes, has expressed interest in the earliest days of silent cinema, when directors would linger on a train arriving into a station without cutting away — if only because they hadn’t yet realized they had other options.

The audiences who watched such films, according to Mr. Van Sant, would laugh awkwardly at a close-up of a human face. They’d never seen such a sight. And what was the point of it?

For “Elephant,” Mr. Van Sant employed nonactors from his hometown of Portland. He is there only to observe. He follows them for long, uninterrupted stretches from behind as they walk down hallways, gossip over lunch, stock shelves in the library.

Dialogue is improvised. Scenes are arbitrarily unspooled and then reassembled from different perspectives, as though the movie itself is the product of a scatterbrained teenager’s memory.

The two killers are seen entering the school — as dull and antiseptic as any prison — early on, armed to the teeth. Wending to and from that prelude to violence, Mr. Savides does exactly what he did in “Gerry”: He points his camera skyward and speeds up the reel, suggesting an aura of terror rolling in with the weather patterns.

Why is something so simple so effective and evocative? I have no idea; it just is.

“Elephant’s” players were all written to type: a jock and his dreamy girlfriend, a trio of bulimic princesses, an artsy eccentric, a bookish nerd who refuses to show her skin in phys ed, a bullied introvert.

The most successful of these amateurs are the ones, paradoxically, who try to act, such as Alex Frost, who, in the film’s opening sequence, must drive himself to school when his alcoholic father (Timothy Bottoms) veers wildly down a suburban street, sideswiping cars.

Alex — all the school-age characters are given their real names — arrives late and must endure the withering incomprehension of the school principal (Matt Malloy). He dutifully covers for his drunken father.

Mr. Van Sant is careful about suggesting causation. Like Alex, every student has a small story; only two go berserk. He does, however, incautiously show the homicidal pair ordering guns off the Internet — no easy task in reality.

They evince interest in fascism, too, as they watch archival footage of Hitler and Mussolini on the day of their deed, which is plausible as far as it goes. They wouldn’t find Stalin appealing in quite the same way, would they?

There’s also a weird subtext of homosexuality. Before the shooting begins, one classroom is discussing sexual orientation — whether homosexuals can be spotted by the way they walk and talk.

On the morning of their massacre, the killers, both male, take a shower together and kiss. I presume homosexuals will resent the implication.

“Elephant” is far more compelling than, say, Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine,” which seriously and ridiculously asserted that the proximity of a Lockheed Martin plant to Columbine High School had something to do with the 1999 killings.

When the movie finally snaps into place, it’s more shocking and blood-chilling than any horror flick. If “Elephant” has any failing at all, it’s that Mr. Van Sant can only feign interest in the problem of evil.

Too bad. A talent such as Mr. Van Sant’s might just yield a moral insight or two.

***

TITLE: “Elephant”

RATING: R (Disturbing violent content, profanity, brief sexuality and drug use)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Gus Van Sant. Produced by Dany Wolf. Executive produced by Diane Keaton and Bill Robinson. Photography directed by Harris Savides.

RUNNING TIME: 81 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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