DIRECTED BY Gus Van Sant
STARRING Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, Alicia Miles, Timothy Bottoms
Opens January 30, Cert 15, 88 mins
The late, great director Alan Clarke made a little-seen but highly regarded experimental film in 1989 about political violence in Northern Ireland. It was called Elephant, referring to a screamingly obvious problem that society blindly refuses to address. Gus Van Sant, no stranger to cinematic homage, lifted the title of this powerful teen drama directly from Clarke. The idea of an unspoken but urgent crisis is crucial here, too, although this time the topic is lethal shootings in US high schools. Inevitably, the shadow of Columbine looms large.
Very large, in fact. Elephant is almost a documentary recreation of the notorious 1999 massacre in Littleton, Colorado. As the action unfolds in a series of parallel plot lines, two heavily armed suburban fuck-ups (Frost and Deulen) mount a methodically planned assault on their school, randomly gunning down their classroom peers. The echoes of Columbine are precise and shameless. And although Van Sant relocates the story to his native Portland, Oregon, this could clearly be Anytown, USA.
Nobody could accuse Van Sant of sensationalising real-life tragedy, although he does aestheticise it. Shot in long takes, Elephant was financed by US cable channel HBO and made on a tight budget with an unknown cast of real schoolkids. In a style that initially feels mannered but soon becomes utterly hypnotic, we follow half a dozen main characters around the school in endless tracking shots, allowing tension to build with eerie detachment. Van Sant first tested this technique on last year’s lo-fi road movie Gerry, and there is even a sly reference to his previous film in one of the computer games that the killers play.
Most strikingly, this poetic Cannes Palme d’Or winner offers no explanation for the massacre. These teenage assassins may be sexually confused, poorly parented and alienated, but no more than their victims. With its serene, voyeuristic, eavesdropping style, Elephant demolishes the brittle certainties behind orthodox Hollywood heroism and shallow media moralising. It’s a bold, haunting and subversive work. It also puts Van Sant firmly back in indie auteur mode, even excusing the wretched Finding Forrester. Welcome home.