Gus Van Sant makes Elephant an act of mourning
– specifically over the Columbine shootings, and also over the loss of innocence that tragedy implied. Appropriately set during the fall, when things are dying beautifully, the film uses lyrical camera work to cast a spiritual glow on the most mundane of high school activities – walking to class, say, or eating lunch in the cafeteria. The ensemble cast of nonprofessional actors, with their fresh-from-the-mall clothes and adolescent chatter, lends an authentic air to the otherwise impressionistic proceedings. As Elephant follows a handful of students through their day, the
movie at first appears to be nothing more than a discussion-starter about school
violence , yet as the picture progresses and we realize two of the characters are
planning a massacre, Van Sant’s approach becomes more pointed. What once were casual details pulled from the lives of many teenagers – bullying,
inattentive parents, sadistic video games, easy access to guns – have
coalesced into a pile of evidence. Elephant ultimately suggests that Columbine wasn’t inexplicable but inevitable.