What makes Gus Van Sant's Elephant so popular is not its plot or traditional Hollywood thrill we are used to witnessing in most well made movies, but it's the experience of living in the realm of the movie and taking part in it. Elephant pulls the audience away from their seats and into the scenes themselves where they get to witness the most mundane lives then the most gruesome moments. It is a movie that, whether you love it or hate it, will keep you tossing and turning in bed for nights afterwards. In essence, Elephant makes the audience themselves become elephants as they watch it.
The movie begins with a car scene of a drunk father unable to drive his son to school, so the son takes over and drives there. The camera follows him all the way into the school and after he gets requested to go to the principal office, the camera transitions to someone else. The movie keeps transitioning from one student to another, showing nothing more than the average high school life many of us have already lived, but it does so at eye level to give the audience a feel that they themselves are the camera following the person. The monotonous story makes the audience want to spit on the screen and leave the movie theatre, but the way the movie is shot binds them to their seats and make them want to stay till the end like the way a child is made to finish his entire plate of vegetables.
At that point, it would be very surprising if there was anyone who was enjoying the movie. But it seemed to Van Sant that this was the optimum moment to completely change flow of events without warning. An hour into the movie, two students go inside the school and start shooting everyone. Even though the audience are forced to follow the killers as the brutally execute a mass slaughter of innocent people, the momentum of the movie remains flat. There is no music to accompany the scenes neither is there any expression on the killers' faces to show that they doing something out of the ordinary. The movie also ends with the same flat momentum as Van Sant provides us with no conclusion of what happens nor does he provide the audience with any lead for them to be able to conclude the movie on their own.
The movie kept me awake the night after watching the movie, as I had not understood anything of what I watched, and I did not have the mental power to process the movie just yet because I was still left with the enormous shock and prodigious load of emotions. Later I realized that my emotions were not conceived of a movie, but of me witnessing a massacre with my own two eyes.
Van Sant made the movie based on the an actual high school massacre known as the Columbine High School Massacre, which till this day is known as the largest high school massacre ever to occur on US soil. Van Sant did not want to make a documentary where he could feed us with information of what happened, but rather make us live it and try to come with the information on our own, as the name of the movie explains what his intention was.
The name of the movie was borrowed from Alan Clarke's movie where Van Sant also borrowed many of Clarke's filming techniques. What both Clarke and Van Sant meant by "Elephant" was something very obvious that we see everyday but fail to notice and that emulates a huge elephant in a room that no one pays attention to. The elephants in Van Sant's movie are both the socially isolated students we follow and also ourselves as the audience. The socially isolated students are shown to live their lives everyday with no one paying much attention to them, even though the pain and psychological difficulties they go through should be noticed. We are elephants because we too are isolated from the our surroundings as we walk around the school unnoticed.
Through the movie we come to a deeper understanding of what "elephants" are as he plays around with Berkeley's concept of existence and Descartes's. George Barkely defines existence as the ability to be perceived by stating that "To be is to be perceived." Descartes, on the other hand, defines existent as the ability of a person to think when he says "I think, therefore I am." Van Sant shows us how the students and the audience are trapped with their own thoughts because their thoughts are the only conformation to them that they exist, but they cannot satisfy Berkley's concept of existence. This provides us with one explanation for the killings as the two students start to kill others around them because this is the only way they can be perceived. But Van Sant gives us no absolute conclusion of why the killings happened, instead he leaves many clues which pose more questions than answers. Other than wanting to satisfy their existence, Van Sant also shows us they the killers were bullied, were gay, played violent video games, and were influenced by the Nazi's from world war II.
Gus Van Sant's Elephant is a masterpiece that is not like any other piece of work out there. It is like an organized piece of chaotic art that emerges the Dionysian disorder with the Apollonian order in a perfect combination where nothing makes sense on its own but everything makes sense together. It is unexpected and hard to grasp in a way that emulates the ambiguity of real life. It bores the audience and then horrifies them, but it does so in a well ordered and well designed way that makes them want to observe more. The movie does not give the audience any information about the shootings, but gives them all the tools needed for them to forge the information on their own.
The story is 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.
Elephant is loosely based on the school shooting in 1999 known as Columbine High School massacre with the shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. When I say loosely I really mean loosely because this isn't base on a true story bullsh't that you always get in movies, no it's actually Gus Van Sant wanted to make a movie relating to the biggest school massacre of all time and showing loneliness and depression due to bully and the big things around them which later ended violently.
Now this movie isn't for anyone and those's who are expecting the first, second and third act or just a simple movie, well your not going to get some of that. The ending without giving anything away ended in a way that I felt loads of people are saying to themselves "What the hell, what was that about? what the hell did I just watch and why did it end like that?". I won't lie but I took me time to think over the ending and after doing some research I think I got it, but if I have to explain it to you means spoiling it for you and I like people to go into a movie with only knowing the story and that's it.
Gus Van Sant directed this movie in a way that it has a depressing and lonely feel to it at time or maybe it's just me, but anywhere he directed this movie excellently and probably my second favorite movie from him.
The long shot takes and the fact the movie is set in one day and the different day the characters have I thought it was brilliant and a smart move to do. To be honest I didn't notice this until late on in the movie.
For problems I didn't really have any. The acting was all good, the directing as I said before was filmed top notch and the fact that movie leaves you hanging cold cold.