A fictional take on the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, Gus Van Sant's Elephant is a love-it-or-hate-it film if ever there was one. Even before it was released in the US, American critics were bashing it as being exploitative, wrongheaded, irresponsible, and above all, "too pretty". There are claims that Van Sant's depiction of an ordinary high school looks like a Calvin Klein commercial. That the teens are unrealistically beautiful, fetishized by the director's camera. I disagree.
The kids (all amateur actors from Van Sant's native Portland, Oregon) look like regular teens to me - some are good-looking, some are plain, some are homely. And anyway, how does one "responsibly" depict the minutes leading up to a horrific slaughter enacted by two distraught teenage boys? Well, some might say that that's impossible. And they might be right: The niggling thing about this movie is that it is so objective - at least on the surface - that an audience member leaving the theatre may wonder what its point actually is.
I think Elephant's goal is simply to present the terror and tragedy of the actual experience, which it does so well that I was cringing in dread the whole time - even during the long periods in which nothing happens. The film keeps you fully aware that something awful is just about to come down, and Van Sant cuts back and forth through time so frequently that you feel that the gunshots and screams could begin at any moment. It's gut-wrenching. Upon a second viewing, when I'd know what to expect and when to expect it, Elephant's endless tracking shots of teenagers strolling around might come across as aimless. But Van Sant and crew have still provided many images, both graceful and horrifying, that will stay with me for a long time. I think Elephant is a great and haunting film.