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Elephant
2003 - R - 81 Mins.
Director: Gus Van Sant
Producer: Dany Wolf, Bill Robinson
Starring: Elias McConnell, Alex Frost, John Robinson, Eric Deulen, Jordan Taylor
Review by: Greg Ursic
   
If it bleeds it leads. And there’s no better showstopper than children spilling the blood of other children - figuratively speaking of course. There is currently a worldwide epidemic of youth violence that shows no sign of abatement. Or at least that’s we’re left with after a nonstop barrage of splashy headlines and new specials about the subject. According to almost every study conducted in the past decade however, the number of violent crimes committed by youths has been steadily declining. All it takes however is one shocking event to galvanize the public.

Watt High School is a normal school by any standard of measurement with its share of jocks, slackers, keeners and an otherwise regular assortment of kids. Unbeknownst to the students they are lumbering towards infamy when two of its disenfranchised members decide to end a cycle of abuse at the hands of his peer. Outnumbered and frail they’re not about to rely on fisticuffs to settle the score.

It’s been a month since I saw Elephant at the Vancouver Film Festival and I’m still divided on it. As everyone knows (well, anyone who follows film at least) it has been lauded by most critics, and won this year’s Palme d’or at Cannes where it was hailed as visionary. Filmed at an Oregon high school with an amateur cast, it is a work of fiction, loosely based on the events at Columbine. What makes Elephant decidedly different is that Gus Van Sant chose to focus on the students rather than the “main event” which in combination with largely improvised dialogue lends the film its credibility. It is also an innovative and visually striking film.

Elephant is shot from several different perspectives, both literally and figuratively: there are several distinct sequences that employ repeating timelines to show the daily grind that is high school through the eyes of different students as an innocuous prelude to the climax. Van Sant utilizes long shots to give a wide-open feel to scenes - even when they’re shot in a narrow hallway - while fade ins create an ethereal feeling. Still there are several things that really annoyed me about the film.

None too subtle changes in the weather are supposed to heighten the dramatic atmosphere of the film, yet feel like so many cheap props. I also found a number of tangential elements distracting: for example, the opening sequence involving the drunk driver contributes nothing to the film. Van Sant could have used this time to further develop the main characters – I for one wanted to know more about the withdrawn girl in gym class. The most egregious failure is the film’s attempts to explain the shooters’ motivation – it is essentially implied that they are gay nazi lovers (and no I’m not joking). This simplistic explanation is derivative, nonsensical and renders the rest of the film moot (I was waiting to hear a Marilyn Manson track as the final insult) .

Van Sant should be congratulated for a great looking film that illustrates the senselessness of violence, without resorting to graphic visuals. At the same time he should also be ashamed for resorting to blatant sensationalism that serves no purpose.
 
Movie Guru Rating
Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not. Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not. Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not.
  3 out of 5 stars

 
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