Review of Elephant

Elephant (2003)
Making a vacuum out of a tragedy
10 February 2004
Imagine it: A horrific tragedy has taken place in a local school, the violence and inexplicability of which has stunned everyone who has heard of it. A meeting is announced that will address the issues that such an event has raised. At the meeting, the main speaker takes the floor, stares at his audience for a few long seconds, then shrugs his shoulders and mumbles "S**t happens". What? You ask. That's it? "Well," he says, "you can't expect me to provide YOU with the answers. But I did take some nice photos".

That's "Elephant".

It would be hard to tackle such a topic without sinking into "Movie of the Week" territory, so Van Sant avoids this by sitting down and not doing much of anything. But artfully.

Why was this film made? What does it tell us about the events? That they happened. What does he tell us about the victims? Nothing, absolutely nothing. We follow them around, interminably (I feel I knew the backs of their heads intimately, if nothing else) and it's a lot like reality tv -- dull: uninvolving, unrevealing and uneventful. What does it tell us about the perpetrators? Nothing we don't already know, haven't already read. Insights? None. It exists in its own universe, blank and unfeeling, a perfect circle, Art for Art's sake.

As far as it goes, there are some beautiful touches, here -- the overlapping time frames, the slowing down of the action to signify a small, private, joyful moment -- but Van Sant bottles out on taking them anywhere, afraid as he seems to be of taking a stand, making a statement or engaging, emotionally, in any way with anything here.

All in all, an Artsy and pointless exercise in navel-gazing, one that masquerades as something much deeper, and hopes its own silence and blankness will be taken for wisdom.
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