Director: Van SantReview
the film definitely has a certain degree of potential – both in its content and the way in which it was filmed. it’s basically a fictional version of what happened at columbine high, enough said there. as for the filming style…it was done almost completely with stedicams while following various characters in the high school. like kubrick does towards the end of “the killing,” van sant tells each character’s story up to a point, rewinds time, and follows another character. we are given this information when we see a second or third character interact with a character we have previously followed. because the whole film is done in this manner without the aid of voice-over (which kubrick employed in the killing) it makes for an interesting way for van sant to flex his directorial muscles. editing and logistics must have been a pain, but it’s pulled off fairly well. ebert points out that this style was partly employed as an attempt to strip the film of its cinematic flavor (“avoids the film grammar,” as he put it)…to get closer to a cinema verite style. the results are mixed – he doesn’t use much cutting, but he does use title cards; he doesn’t have any fade outs or wipes, but the editing style (forward to a point, back and then forward to the point again) certainly made me conscious of the filmmaking process. in other words, he was trying to make the filmmaking as transparent as possible, but had mixed results.
aside from that the film is largely untapped potential. acting is spotty and the screenplay fails to provide much emotional resonance. pretty much the whole film is about setting up the normalcy of high school – the kids we follow have mostly vapid, empty conversations about their love life or lunch or people they don’t like. the only motive provided for what the two killers do is that one of them gets something thrown at him in class. that’s literally it. if the goal is to present a situation where we don’t know the motivation, then why show this minor incident which seems to hint at a larger problem? “elephant” was utterly unconvincing and disappointing in that regard, but i think that’s what van sant was going for. as for the title…i have no idea why it’s called “elephant.” i suppose that makes sense though because i had a similar question after watching the movie…why make this movie at all? i don’t know what van sant was hoping to accomplish. he demonstrated an ability to handle the technical aspects of a film that was fairly demanding in that regard, but we already knew he could direct a good film. did he hope to re-establish himself as an indie director by working with amateurs on a small film?
if i stretched it i might be able to think of the film like this…the film was shot in an intentionally cold way, with mostly vapid characters interacting in a completely normal, uneventful way all for the purpose of setting up a neutral landscape for the viewer. even the killers are seemingly okay people – we don’t feel that sorry for them because we don’t see any awful abuse or teasing. we also don’t empathize with the future victims because they have few, if any, redeeming qualities…or for that matter much personality at all. in other words the entire first 70 minutes of the film before the shoot-out sets up a neutral arena for the viewers. we don’t think the killers are justified and we haven’t invested much in any of the victims. the shoot-out, then, reflects our own feelings about spree-killings in general. since we have no empathy for the killers and no bias for/against the victims we are forced to judge the act instead of those who are carrying it out or being victimized by it. since i came out of the film with no real feelings about it does that mean that i don’t care about killing unless someone meaningful is being killed? perhaps. i don’t know. i think one might be able to view the film in this manner, and that that would make the film slightly better, but still not all that great. after all, wouldn’t the same effect be achieved if he had just lopped off the first 70 minutes altogether? again, i don’t know. it’s an interesting film to discuss, but i don’t have anyone to discuss it with and i didn’t really like it all that much…on the other hand the more i think about it, the more interesting it gets so i’ll give it a C+.