Elephant is a striking film because of its similarity to Columbine, which is exactly what writer/director Gus Van Sant wants. After a series of higher profile, mainstream films, Van Sant (Gerry, Finding Forrester) is moving back towards a more independent, experimental frame of mind. The films may not always be that interesting, but at least they provide some fodder for conversation. Gerry was an exercise in minimalism that was a little too minimal. Elephant is a step back in minimalism but a step forward for Van Sant. It's almost manipulative in how it uses Columbine in order to get a reaction out of the viewer, but as cheap as it is, it works.

The film is bare bones in its simplicity. There is no real plot, it is just an ordinary day at school. The camera literally follows students as they go to their classes, interact with other students, and just act like teens. Van Sant literally has the cameraman follow the students as they go about their day. John (John Robinson) is depressed because of his father. Elias (Elias McConnell) is taking photographs for a school project, and Michelle (Kristen Hicks) is extremely self-conscious about her looks. Meanwhile, Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen), two social outcasts, are plotting to storm the school and shoot as many people as they can. Van Sant gives no explanation as to why they chose to do what they did. He shows them, cold and calculating. They watch footage of Hitler, play first person shooters, kiss in the shower, and even do ordinary things like play the piano. Alex and Eric are cold, methodically planning out the best way to maximize deaths.

The entire point is to show how horrific these events are, and how random they may appear. When it begins, it shatters the calm of an ordinary day at school. Van Sant lulls the viewer into a false sense of serenity by structuring the film the way he does. Watching ordinary kids do ordinary things at school can get boring. Alex and Eric's slaughter comes out of nowhere, and breaks any sort of complacency that Van Sant created. There is also some pretty interesting editing. Van Sant follows specific kids around, for a period of time, and often they will pass each other in the hall. When this happens, Van Sant will show the meeting from the point of view of whoever he is following. It is a little disorienting at first because of some of the non-linearity, but events soon begin to coalesce. Also, by spending some time with each student, Van Sant allows viewers to get to know them. They are individuals with different personalities. So when some of them inevitably die, it makes their deaths all the more touching. Van Sant recruited actual high school students, many with little to no acting experience at all. They're not great, but they are normal, and that is what Van Sant wanted.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
1 hour, 21 minutes, Rated R for disturbing violent content, language, brief sexuality and drug use - all involving teens.

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