Critics Consensus

The movie's spare and unconventional style will divide viewers.



Total Count: 159


Audience Score

User Ratings: 59,136
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Movie Info

A tale about high school violence that unfolds on an ordinary school day, inside an American high school, filled with schoolwork, football, gossip and socializing. For each of the students we meet, high school is a different experience: stimulating, friendly, traumatic, lonely, hard.


John Robinson (IX)
as John McFarland
Kristen Hicks
as Michelle
Timothy Bottoms
as Mr. McFarland
Matt Malloy
as Mr. Luce
Ellis E. Williams
as GSA Teacher
Ellis Williams
as GSA Teacher
Kim Kenney
as Assistant Principal's Secretary
Marci Buntrock
as Assistant Secretary
Roman Ostrovsky
as Red Haired Kid
Vana O'Brien
as P.E. Instructor
Alfred Ono
as Mr. Fong
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Critic Reviews for Elephant

All Critics (159) | Top Critics (46) | Fresh (116) | Rotten (43)

  • There's much to argue with, but this unconventional, oddly beautiful film resonates in unexpected ways.

    Mar 12, 2018 | Full Review…

    David Ansen

    Top Critic
  • It offers a dismaying whiff of mortality in the spaces between the girls' chattering remarks in the cafeteria and in the blank eyes of boys who feel alienated from everything except the guns they cradle so lovingly in their arms.

    Apr 24, 2013 | Full Review…

    David Denby

    New Yorker
    Top Critic
  • What I'll remember most vividly about Gus Van Sant's extraordinary "Elephant" is not the violent climax but the state of grace that precedes it.

    Apr 24, 2013 | Full Review…
  • Elephant creates gorgeous, wide-open spaces that allow viewers the freedom to reflect without having a point-of-view imposed on them.

    Apr 24, 2013

    Scott Tobias

    AV Club
    Top Critic
  • The approach is oddly riveting, though, because the tension builds slowly, and you know what's going to happen at the end of the day.

    Apr 24, 2013 | Full Review…
  • The film doesn't try to explain, but to put us in a subjective time and space, a place where it's impossible not to feel the abject horror of random violence.

    Jan 26, 2006 | Full Review…
    Time Out
    Top Critic

Audience Reviews for Elephant

  • May 29, 2014
    Get ready, parents, because this is the first high-profile film about a high school shooting, but don't get too concerned about copy-cats, because these days, it's become a little more popular for kids to kill themselves, especially if they're gay. What ever ends up happening, with all due respect, the Elephant Man didn't feel like shoot up a school, so I'm thinking that these gay kids might need to get over it. Man, if anyone can take the story of the Columbine massacre and make it about gay people problems, while moving the setting to Portland, Oregon, no less, it's Gus Van Sant, although that's not to say that this film is as grounded as his usual endeavors. I mean, it's the follow-up to "Gerry", and sure enough, it's so avant-garde that it's not actually about an elephant, like, at all, outside of weird, random imagery, that is (I guess it's not too hard to ignore the elephant in the room in this case). Perhaps it stands to be more avant-garde, because if we can take relief in nothing else, it's the fact that the influence on Van Sant's "Death Trilogy" from Béla Tarr cut off before we came to experimenting with runtimes, because this film is enough of a challenge at 81 minutes, let alone 7 hours or something. Shoot, maybe this film can't get too much more avant-garde after all, because it did end up winning the Palme d'Or, and I don't think I'd like to see a film get much more abstract than that. Shoot, maybe my mood swings are about as bad as those made by the teens in this film, because I'm back to saying that this film stands to be more tediously abstract, as it would have been if it wasn't for certain strengths. Underusing a minimal classical soundtrack, albeit not as much as "Gerry", this film's unoriginal score, when incorporated, captures the awkward intensity which defines this psychological drama's tone with a certain personal beauty, just as Harris Savides' cinematography proves to be tonally and aesthetically sharp, with slightly more distinguished coloration than the visual style of "Gerry" to make up for less lovely scenery, which is still intriguingly explored with an immersive extensiveness to tight framing and nifty tracking shots. Musical and visual artistry are limited, but sharper than they were in a predecessor that, if nothing else, had aesthetic value going for it, thus, this film proves to at least be stylistically impressive, sometimes in a manner that compliments substance. If style does compliment substance, then it's largely thanks to Gus Van Sant's directorial orchestration, whose minimalism drives the film from decency, all but secured by admittedly compelling highlights in Van Sant's inspiration as a thoughtful storyteller and director of talented performers. Being naturalist, this film provides minimal acting material for a cast of talented unknowns, yet when these talents find an opportunity to flaunt their chops, they drive the opus with a dramatic bite which ranges from chillingly subtle to intense, drawing you into the heart of the characters with whom this drama is very intimate. No matter how much the execution tries to bring style over substance and underplay the development of its characters as more than just thematic compliments, this story concept is that of a character study, and a worthy one, which has the potential to bite deeply as a meditation upon the mental and emotional instability of youths who take part in or fall victim to a terrible, terrible tragedy. This potential is thoroughly betrayed by a questionable ambition to flesh out artistry beyond drama, but it's nevertheless palpable enough, largely through highlights in style and storytelling, for the final product to at least border on decent. It's certain better than "Gerry", I can give it that, but no much more than that, because no matter how clear the strengths are, the issues are clearer, and not even unfamiliar. The film isn't even as conventional as "Gerry", though that might simply be because more filmmakers are comfortable with telling the tale of some bums who get stranded from society than they are with telling the tale of society or whatever driving youths to kill a bunch of people, because when it comes to the interpretation of this unique and worthy subject matter, it's more of the same overstylization that is bland enough without the familiarity, as surely as it distances you from the characters enough without backing an underdeveloped script. To be so intimate with its characters, this film offers hardly anything in the way of background development for the leads, and it's not as though it says that much with all of its meditations when it comes to gradual exposition, because even in the script substance is underplayed, typically for the sake of style. I emphasize that style is played over substance "typically", because there are times in which visual style joins storytelling focus in being abandoned for sheer nothingness, and when substance does come into play, it's in a convolutedly nonlinear and intentionally uneven form that, just like the nothingness, is more frustrating than distinguished. With all that said, the film is more grounded than "Gerry", and that both helps in making a less tedious film, and works against the film, as it actually gives you a greater feel for just how disconcerting the offbeat storytelling aspects are by comparison, alone, even though all storytelling styles at least keep consistent in dragging. Running only a mere 81 minutes, the film is so short, so one would figure that it wouldn't take too much time to drags its feet, but considering that substance is so thin, to the point of borderline plotlessness, the final product is predominantly dragging, made all the more tedious by the thoughtfulness to Gus Van Sant's direction that doesn't have any dramatic material to subtly draw upon, resulting in serious limp spells that end up making up the final product. Unfocused and draggy, with a quiet intensity that is more dry than biting, this film, plain and simple, is challengingly dull, perhaps even tedious, but, again, not quite "Gerry", largely due to Van Sant's all but losing a sense of artistic unassurance, while unfortunately still retaining a sense of pretense. There's a hint of charm to Van Sant's direction, and it's not like Van Sant doesn't deliver on his ambitions at times, but when it's all said and done, the filmmaker demands your investment, and it's just so hard to give, as the film is so questionably, if not messily crafted that no matter how effective it occasionally is, the final product falls flat as yet another misguided artistic misfire. In the end, lovely unoriginal scoring and cinematography carry a stylistic sharpness, while highlights in direction and acting provide glimpses of a more worthy interpretation of worthy subject matter, ultimately overshadowed by familiarity to style, underdevelopment to characters, and bloating and unevenness to a questionable storytelling style which abandons dramatic focus for the sake of a pretentious and tediously dull, offbeat sparsity that drives Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" flat as a hopelessly misguided and ultimately mediocre abstractionist interpretation of certain disturbances within and disturbing actions of youths. 2.25/5 - Mediocre
    Cameron J Super Reviewer
  • Sep 22, 2013
    I'm coming to realize that school shooting movies might not be my thing. In all fairness the only other one I recall seeing is We Need to Talk About Kevin, which wasn't per say a shooting, but it has a similar theme. I've also come to realize Gus Van Sant isn't really connecting with me. Again in fairness I've only seen this, Good Will Hunting, and Paranoid Park. Elephant follows a similar narration to Paranoid Park with the loop concept. With Paranoid Park I thought this was an up for the film, since without it the movie would be desert dry. In this case though I believe it hurt the film, due to the repetitive nature, and lack of action. This film is highly minimalistic. It requires little, the only time the score is apparent is the DVD menu. Before the shooting occurs this film has its moments, something I noticed was the great body language acting. The decision to bring in no name actors really worked well, with the genuine feeling. The bulimic scene was pretty funny, but not as shocking as I think it was intended to be. By giving the killers a face, despite not a character, it made them a lot more detestable. A queer slim shady wanna be and his sadistic boyfriend, these are people I wouldn't be fond of even if they didn't shoot up a school. This award winning film wasn't shocking to me, but I did appreciate some of the factors to it.
    Daniel D Super Reviewer
  • Jan 25, 2013
    Gus Van Sant's 'Elephant' made me sick in the stomach. Powerful and unsettling, masterful in its direction, editing and sound design. Never have I seen a film de-glamourise violence in this way. You dread it from the moment you see the two kids about to walk into school, and the non-linear timeline left me constantly feeling sick, knowing what's to come into to the lives of these unassuming, mundane teenagers we follow. The editing is brilliant, and the long tracking shots and camera movement in general is very distinct. Fleeting references to a first person shooter, the ease at which guns can be obtained, delivered by a cheerful delivery man to boot. Is this just Van Sant's view on how America is?
    c0up   Super Reviewer
  • Nov 05, 2012
    With a mere running time of 81 minutes, "Elephant" is a relatively short film by today's standards. But still, its succinct study of teen angst is cinematic power at its rawest form. By using unknown actors (except for Timothy Bottoms), devious long takes and painful irony, director Gus Van Sant was able to weave a film that's subtle in its societal commentary but fully incisive in its spontaneity. Though its appeal may ostensibly look as if it's a film that merely caters to hipsters and niche teenagers, "Elephant" is really much more than that. On one side, it is a stirring indictment of homophobia and school bullying. On the other, it's a well-realized portrait of high school life. But unlike films like "The Breakfast Club" or any other teen-oriented ones that rely on stereotypes, "Elephant" depicts its teen-aged characters not as categorized social beings but as emotionally distant and ennui-laden youngsters that are in for the whole pointlessness of it all because, hell, they don't have any choice. To channel the realistically free-flowing randomness of high school life, Gus Van Sant shot the film entirely in a series of long takes and multiple points of view to create a "Rashomon-like" perspective on things and also to give the seemingly stagnant Watt High School (fictitious) some sort of dimension. In addition, Van Sant has also decided to shoot the majority of his characters from behind (which sometimes renders them faceless) so that, in a way, we wouldn't care for them that much when they become nothing but casualties. For me, this is particularly cruel on Gus Van Sant's part, but in some respect, it's also the rightful thing to do. He has purposefully deprived us of any of the characters' faces and back stories so that we wouldn't be attached to them that much when things go out of hand. In the end, Van Sant has shown how fervently humanistic he is. He cares for his characters and he cares for us too. He knows that pain is just around the corner, so in an act of goodwill, he makes us see their backs, shoulders but never much their faces so that the pain of seeing them 'go' will not be too hurtful. Instead, he has focused his camera lenses precisely on the two characters whose irrational gun assault to the aforementioned high school students echoes the tragedy that is the Columbine shooting. But still, Van Sant has also depicted them in a way that's also worthy of empathy. Indeed, there's no denying the fact that these two students have gone out of hand in their line of thinking. In one scene, as they map out their plan for their school rampage, they have even reminded each other to 'have fun'. But looking at it, they are also victims here. So if it's not really them, who are the real culprits then? Was it their parents that are at fault here? Perhaps, but the real suspect here, aside from these two students, is mass media and the brutal extent of our homophobic society. Mass media because it is the one that has welcomed these two to the fact that shooting people is just as easy as breathing (mainly through video games), and society because it is the one that has created this notion that people who may try to come out of the closet will be utterly crucified and laughed at. That, aside from the very sight of the shooting, is what's most disturbing in the film. "Elephant", one of the most deeply unsettling and harrowing films in recent memory, is also a very sensible, understanding and gently elegiac film that has brought these putrid social truths into the forefronts of cinematic discourse. Yes, "Elephant" is outright troubling, but it's also quite enlightening.
    Ivan D Super Reviewer

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