Movie Review


In Elephant, director Gus Van Sant depicts what most Americans only imagined in the days after the Columbine High School killings of April 1999: that same violence transported to their own local high school.

Van Sant’s film, which he also wrote, could have gone wrong in a lot of places. Four years after Erik Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 14 classmates and one teacher at their Littleton, Col., high school, memories of that day remain vivid for anyone who was or knew a high school student at the time. Attempts to identify the “cause” of the murders became a morbid national pastime, with the media and high profile Congress members simplistically blaming everyone from Marilyn Manson to the National Rifle Association for the boys’ lethal actions. Even Michael Moore’s wry and often insightful investigation of the tragedy, last year’s Oscar-winning documentary Bowling for Columbine, ultimately descended into a disappointingly reductionist argument which seemed to place personal blame for Columbine on actor and NRA president Charlton Heston.

In staging the tragedy at a fictional high school in his own city of Portland, Ore., Van Sant avoids this type of oversimplification, making what is surely one of the most thoughtful and inquisitive films of the year. Focusing on twelve students on the day of the shooting, Elephant patiently explores the pressures and indignities of being a high school student. The film renders its characters with unusual accuracy, commiserating with one student about the dress code for gym class and sharing the impatience of several juniors waiting for the day when they can go off-campus for lunch. As he did in the underrated To Die For, Van Sant demonstrates a real gift for capturing authentic-sounding high school dialogue (“Are you going to the concert tonight?” “No, I can’t. My parents are being bitches this week.”)

The film thus moves toward its bloody climax with exactly the type of credibility its subject demands, and the closing sequences build skillfully on what has come before. Though Elephant can seem a little heavy-handed in places—three girls plan a shopping trip over lunch and then head to the bathroom for a group-vomiting session—even its most obvious observations ring true. And those same observations are almost always counterbalanced by scenes which deepen the characters and deflate their stereotypical qualities. The killers do indeed play violent, dehumanizing computer games, but they also seem genuinely to care about each other, and one plays the piano with an undeniable talent and passion for Beethoven. Some of their weaponry may be delivered while the two watch a TV documentary fetishizing Hitler, but viewers of the History Channel know it’s not unlikely that the same footage will appear on cable a dozen times more before the end of the month.

Despite the audience’s foreknowledge of the eventual attack, the violence is no less startling when it arrives. In contrast to the majority of action movies, which present killings and bloodshed as something to be anxiously anticipated, Van Sant creates a tangible dread and a sense of impending loss. The violence is shown vividly where it cannot be avoided, but Van Sant is admirably selective and restrained in what he shows. The murders are never glorified, and each death elicits in the viewer the sadness and anger it deserves. Even the killers realize that this is not a video game.


Van Sant’s film reportedly named his film for the proverbial elephant that becomes invisible after people grow accustomed to its presence, the implication being that the cause of the Columbine should be as obvious as an elephant in someone’s living. As a title for this movie, however, it’s a misnomer. Van Sant respects his audience and subject too much to suggest a single cause for the Columbine killings, and the film is a beautifully nuanced exploration of some of those causes. It is a tribute to Elephant and its director that the viewer emerges, shaken, almost as bewildered as most Americans were on the day of the event itself.