Tuesday, March 29, 2011

#235. Elephant (2003)

DVD Synopsis: Winner of the Palme d'Or and Best Director prizes at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, Gus Van Sant's (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) realistic drama Elephant takes us inside an American high school on one single, ordinary day that very rapidly turns tragic. The story unfolds with class work, football, gossip and socializing. It observes the comings and goings of its characters from a safe distance, allowing us to see them as they are. With each student we see high school through a different experience, a new lens. These experiences range from friendly and innocent to traumatic and deeply disturbing.

Elephant will shake you. Don’t doubt that for a second. Inspired by the tragic killings at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, Elephant relies on its almost documentary style to bring a similar tragedy as close to home as we can possibly bear.

It’s a normal day for many students at this suburban High School in Portland, Oregon. They make their way to and from class; visit the cafeteria, the library, and the offices; discuss what they’ll be doing after school; and arrange meetings with each other for later that day. 

But for many, these plans will never come to pass. An unexpected shooting spree will result in the murder of some, while forever altering the lives of those lucky enough to survive.

The events as depicted in Elephant unfold in random order, and at times we watch the same scene play itself out two, maybe even three times, each from an entirely different perspective. John (John Robinson) and Eli (Elias McConnell) bump into each other in the hallway and stop for a quick chat. Before long, they part company, and go their separate ways. John walks outside the school, just in time to pass Alex (Alex Frost) and his friend, Eric (Eric Deulen), who are dressed in army camouflage and carrying large duffel bags. “Get out of here and don’t come back”, they tell John, and John proceeds to warn everyone he comes across that something very bad is about to happen. 

When we next witness this same exchange between John and Eli, it is much later in the film. This time, however, we follow Eli as he makes his way to the library, and because of the earlier scene with John, we know what's happening at that exact moment in the schoolyard.

We know, but Eli does not, and he is in grave danger as a result. 

Director Gus Van Sant uses the repetition of such events to wonderful effect. By re-visiting scenes like the one above, he establishes a timeline that manages to intensify the film’s dramatic tone. We have information that unfortunate others do not have, and we are powerless to help them.

It sounds so cliché to say “it was a day like any other”, but Elephant shows us that this day was exactly that, and the film’s tragic finale is all the more disturbing because of it.

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