Elephant (2003) Poster

(2003)

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A film that will haunt you
Buddy-517 November 2004
Warning: Spoilers
'Elephant' is Gus Van Sant's brilliant and mind-blowing distillation of teenage alienation and angst. Set on one of those sterile suburban high school campuses, the film recounts a typical day in the life of a school - typical that is until it ends in a Columbine-type massacre.

Here is a film in which style does indeed become substance, where the 'meaning' lies in the form and shape of the film itself. Rather than tell us a conventional 'story,' Van Sant has chosen to give his film the look and feel of a pseudo-documentary, merely recording the events and conversations that occur that day, a day we are led to believe is not unlike every other at that school. Van Sant's prying camera eye turns us into voyeurs, as we observe the cliquishness, petty humiliations, and sheer overwhelming banality that have defined high school life for so many of us. Van Sant uses space brilliantly. Despite the fact that this is undoubtedly a school with a large student population, the characters on whom he focuses seem always to be somehow isolated from almost everyone else around them. None of the characters we see really seem to have any connection with one another, and even when they do, it tends to be of only the most superficial kind. They are like people stranded on their own individual islands, enduring their suffering alone and in silence. Van Sant sets the tone with his tracking shots of characters strolling down seemingly endless corridors heading to nowhere in particular, making little or no human contact as they go. The camera, throughout the film, seems to have a mind of its own, often avoiding what seems to be a major plot point and, instead, zeroing in on something that seems to have little or no real importance. Then through the process of editing, he weaves nothing less than a tapestry of alienation. By concentrating so intently on the seemingly irrelevant minutia of daily life, Van Sant brings to the film a sense of documentary immediacy most fiction films lack. We are made privy to bits and pieces of conversation only to have the talk dribble off as we or the characters turn the corner and move on to the next group of people. It is the deadening 'sameness,' the insignificance of so much of what we see and hear that makes this such a sad and haunting experience.

One thing Van Sant refuses to do is try to 'explain' why the killers act as they do. He's smart enough to know that there is no single explanation for such behavior, that it arises from a variety of sources and that it is primarily the product of a general feeling of alienation in modern society. We see one of the murderers suffering humiliation at the hands of two schoolmates, the second killer playing a violent video game and perusing a gun magazine, but these, in and of themselves, cannot be the sole explanations. At best they are symptoms of a much deeper societal sickness, one that Van Sant can only hint at but never fully grasp - for who among us can claim to truly understand it? What 'Elephant' does is to make us focus on and actually see this spirit-crushing ennui which permeates our culture and which defines life for so many of our youngsters.

The director has drawn fine work from his cast of talented unknowns. Their every word, their every gesture rings believable and true. He has also employed Beethoven's 'Fur Elise' to serve as a haunting refrain throughout the film, capturing the poignancy of a world in which beauty, spontaneity and joy seem to have been removed.

There are some who will find 'Elephant' to be slow-moving, empty, arty and pretentious. For them there are plenty of mindlessly upbeat depictions of high school life to watch. But for those who can appreciate a film artist working at the peak of his form, 'Elephant' is a mesmerizing, vision-altering experience that pushes the boundaries of the medium and takes us to a place, emotionally, that we haven't ever been before.
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Brilliant and deeply affecting
howard.schumann6 October 2003
On April 20, 1999, two boys wearing trench coats carried a daunting arsenal of weapons harnessed with military web gear into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and systematically gunned down thirteen students. Gruesome though it was, the incident was just one of eight fatal high school shootings between 1997 and 1999. These traumatizing events began a debate about what was wrong with the nation's youth, an issue that is the subject of Gus Van Sant's Elephant.

Winner of the Golden Palm at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, Elephant is a brilliant and deeply affecting film that makes a courageous attempt to grasp the malaise of today's youth culture. Van Sant does not attempt to explain Columbine or uncover its underlying causes, and there is no revealing epiphany. His film is a highly stylized, dreamlike tone poem that defies linear conventions and is almost surreal in its approach. Using flashbacks and recurring images from different points of view, the film captures the mood and tone of its adolescent world: its perceptions, its self-absorption, and ultimately its darkest instincts.

The camera is a detached observer, and the strength of the film lies in its acute power of observation and detail. Van Sant shows us all the surface rituals: the girl cheerleaders, the boys playing football, the locker-lined hallways, the academic discussions, yet an ineffable feeling of loneliness pervades. The picture features impeccable acting by a group of non-professionals from the Portland, Oregon area. Each character is introduced separately and we see them going about their business on a seemingly ordinary school day. The steadicam-tracking camera follows them as they walk through the sterile halls that seem endless. The school appears without life -- a place where one feels a desperate sense of loss.

We see John (John Robinson), a blonde-haired surfer type, take over the driving from his father who has had too much to drink, then get called to task by an administrator for being late for school. Eli (Elias McConnell) is a photographer who asks classmates, including John, to pose for pictures. Football player Jordan (Jordan Taylor) meets his girlfriend Carrie (Carrie Finklea) for lunch. Three friends Nicole (Nicole George), Brittany (Brittany Mountain), and Acadia (Alicia Miles) gossip and argue about who is whose best friend. Michelle (Kristen Hicks) refuses to wear shorts, is admonished by her teacher, and then goes to work in the library. The paths of these students crisscross throughout the film and each has their own destiny to fulfill when the violence erupts.

The main protagonists, Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen) are modeled after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of Columbine. When we first meet Alex, he is being shunned by his fellow students, called names and pelted with spitballs in science class. Alex is more outgoing and creative, Eric more passive, but their personalities complement each other. Alex and Eric wait at home until a strange package arrives in the mail while Alex plays Beethoven's "Fur Elise" on the piano. When they return to school, they are dressed in combat gear and ready to kill.

Rather than giving us pat answers, Van Sant bases his approach on the elusiveness of truth, and our insatiable desire to know more. The imagery and camerawork are almost painfully beautiful, while the disconnected narrative deliberately withholds closure. On top of all this, the pacing is superb, slowly building up the almost unbearable tension. When it is finally released, the explosion hits you with a frightening energy that is as unforgettable as it is chilling.
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1/10
From the guy who brought you a scene-by-scene remake of Psycho...
Jexxon24 March 2005
Warning: Spoilers
High school, kids having a normal day, two other kids shoot up the place, the end. There's the plot - glad we got that out of the way ...

Elephant is a perfect example of how an utterly worthless film can hide behind an important message and get praised for doing so. How is it possible that this film has won so many awards? There's absolutely nothing in here to warrant it.

Most of the film consists of steadicam shots of students walking through corridors - long endless corridors. Occasionally they stop and say something trivial to some other student. Oh, and since this is an "art film" the chronology is out of order and we get to see the same pointless events from different angles. Why? Because that's what makes the film seem like something else than a countdown to a bunch of executions.

If you didn't know that this film was about school shootings, would you still be watching it after the first 30 minutes? Are the lives of John, Elias, Nathan, and everyone else really that interesting? Or are you just waiting for the guns to start blazing.

There are no answers in this film (to be fair, there are no real questions raised either). Does Elephant bring anything new to the discussion regarding school shootings? No. I guess the (sort of) improvised acting and long takes are supposed to add an element of realism to the film. But it just feels fake and forced. Not for a second do I "believe" in any of these kids. They're just as stereotyped as always before.

I don't believe that Van Sant is interested in giving a real depiction of this kind of shootings. Just look at the actual shooters: bullied, slightly less good looking than everybody else, Nazis, gay, gun freaks, playing video games... Talk about taking the easy way out with those characters.

Elephant is the worst kind of pretentious film there is. It knows it's got nothing to say, so it discovers itself as art - that way people can look at it and say: "Oh it's so beautiful and poetic. And such an important message." The only thing Elephant managed to do, was to earn a tied top spot (together with Eyes Wide Shut) on my list of the most boring films ever made. [0/10]
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Throughout this Cannes-winning, almost docudrama, Van Sant turns our expectations upside down.
jdesando21 March 2004
Warning: Spoilers
What's in the name of a place? Tombstone, Columbine? The former conjures up thoughts of heroic justice, the latter mass murder. Understanding the motives of Wyatt Earp or Dillon Klebold is not as easy as the place names; interpreting a film about either event as antiviolence is not easy either.

So director Gus Van Sant (`My Private Idaho,' `Good Will Hunting,' `Gerry') fictionalizes an average high school at which a Columbine-like massacre takes place. Interestingly, he makes no attempt to relay the underlying causes for the young men's decision to slaughter; in fact, he seems to try hard not to supply any reasons except for a brief segment with a boy watching a show on Nazis and a faceless mother serving pancakes. Even the lad whose father is an alcoholic is not one of the murderers.

As my radio co-host, Clay Lowe, reminds me from our conversation with the director, in Van Sant's Zen Buddhist way, he seems to be saying the reasons for the crime are unknowable like human existence itself. For those critics who fault Van Sant for not committing himself to a thesis, the unknowable should have sufficed. That is not to say the director's slow pace, long takes, and interminable tracking shots aren't boring; it's just that the viewer must give in to the director's vision of teenage life as essentially devoid of humor, excitement, and rationale. For us Western rational types, this mirthless world may serve as a possible cause for the slaughter. As one of the murderers tells the other at the beginning of the rampage, `Have fun.'

Throughout this Cannes-winning, almost docudrama, Van Sant turns our expectations upside down: The misfit girl is not saved just because she is like the assassins; the muscular, seemingly impervious African-American student, tracked like a savior through the halls, is not a hero at all, but another disengaged high-schooler not reading the signals.

The aphorism about the ignored elephant in the living room, where it no longer can be seen because it's been there too long, or the one about the blind men who, each with a part of the elephant, can't describe the whole, can be the appropriate theme of this cinema-verite dissection of the senselessness of evil. As Joseph Conrad said about the violation of the jungle, `It was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole bunch of them.' In other words, crime and it criminals are inscrutable.
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1/10
You're kidding me, right?
bugaboo-71 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
If a film study class ever needed to find an example of shallow, pretentious film-making this gem would fit the bill.

With a listed running time of 82 minutes literally half of it was spent on laborious, pointless tracking shots of people walking. Walking through hallways, across fields, through courtyards and other places I've probably repressed by now.

To add to the train wreck, there wasn't a shred of meaningful dialog, what there was of it.

I guess that's because the majority of the characters were high school students and we're supposed to believe they generally don't say anything meaningful during a typical day. But this is a film and it would've been nice to get some nugget of insight or humor or anything to make us care about any of them.

Finally after being bludgeoned by this seemingly interminable minimalist dreck, accented by useless time shifts, arduous 360 degree pan shots and different points of view of the same inane scenes (all a first year film student's wet dream), we arrive at the film's predictable Columbine conclusion. Yipee.

Killing sprees in schools are bad, thanks for pointing that out.
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1/10
Don't be fooled by how stylistic it is
s_hemann24 April 2008
Warning: Spoilers
This was one of the absolute worst movies I have ever seen. When I began watching it, I was enthralled by the hypnotic images that Van Sant is known for. It seemed cool. Then... my high wore off, and I realized that there was little to no plot, hardly any dialogue, and the movie made no point whatsoever. I hated this movie even more than I hated Gerry. There was so much potential to make a great movie about a school shooting. He could have put some characterization into the two main characters, or any other character at that. Showing small scenes of happenings around each character, and then disbanding them before something actually opens up about their persona makes me mad. Or on the other side, just showing the two shooters get into a shower together without showing a reason why is really dumb. Why were they gay? Is that why they shot up the school? Did they just decide they wanted a homosexual experience before they tried a mass murder? A character walks through the halls as if he was some sort of prophet only to be murdered without speaking a line. There are so many things that I could say to try and convince people to not see this movie, but maybe you should all see it so you can understand what makes bad movies that tons of people seem to like for absolutely no reason. Artistic doesn't automatically make a movie good!
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1/10
Just because it's artistic doesn't mean it's good
noahthek22 February 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Elephant could have been a very beautiful short film. As a feature length movie, however, it is awful. And I fear the reason it has gotten so many positive reviews is that people feel they should like it. Maybe if I were 16 I'd think this film was spectacular too. But just because it's artistic doesn't mean it's good.

I didn't have a problem with the acting, in fact the dark haired killer was pretty good. And the fact that we never know why they decided to kill everyone was acceptable. The biggest problem with the movie was that it was filmed like a short, yet was over 80 minutes long. In a feature length movie you need character development. At least one. In Elephant you learn more about John's drunk father than you do about anyone else and he had only two or three lines.

And these interesting camera techniques that Van Sant employed needed to be complemented or contrasted with something. If the film ended with the surviving killer walking down a hallway as the credits rolled, then maybe the 20 minutes of other people walking wouldn't have been pointless.

My advice: if within the first ten minutes of this film you find yourself waiting for something to happen, stop watching it. You'll save yourself those other 70 minutes that, otherwise, you'd never get back.
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7/10
What we learn when we look from the inside out...
Mercenary1515 April 2004
I just finished watching this movie and I am struck by how quickly I forgot how the world looks when you are a teenager. The movie was excruciatingly slow to start. Instead of formulaic pacing, this film forced us to move at its pace, where we were committed to each long slow camera pan or walk through with the characters. As I have grown up the scope of my life has been ever widening. It stands to reason then that during my younger years I barely conceived of life outside of what I knew, or where I was able to walk. This is what stands out to me about Elephant. When events like this take place, we immediately contextualize them and are unable to look at it from the level of those involved. What Gus VanSant does is bring us very close to the story. I don't see that he attempted to answer many questions, or to portray any specific characters in any light, but he attempts to bring the audience inside such a situation. To the villains in this film there is no deep reasoning, and no evil justification. Aside from revenge over minor school harassment they want to play a more realistic video game. They have created their own reality and carry out their deeds inside of it. This film was made without exploiting the memory of those who have actually been involved in such an event. Since it has been 5 years since these events took place, I am surprised to see a fresh look at this subject matter. What is especially heartbreaking about these tragedies is that when there is no meaning and just random violence there is nothing we can learn by investigating it. The irony of course is that I got this message from viewing a movie that explores this subject matter. I think the movie tells us we can only move on after senseless tragedy, and not solve the problems that caused them. When there is nothing behind the eyes of the people carrying this out, there is no great value in making sense of their actions. It is human nature to do so, and you would think that logically there would be theories, conclusions, etc about the causes. However we would gain much more by focusing on the people who were the victims, and learning about them. In this way they may make a positive mark on us.
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8/10
8/10 good dialogue, unique storytelling
ShimmySnail6 June 2004
This movie is a fictional story, but it is essentially a retelling of the Columbine High massacre. It only spans maybe an hour in time, but it coves the points of view of a lot of people, from victims to bystanders to the murderers themselves.

It's a particularly important piece because of its storytelling style. Van Sant has the camera follow one character at a time, on the day of the murders, and lets the story tell itself. It is about as neutral as one can get, really. Van Sant doesn't use foreshadowing, he doesn't frame any character up as a particular archetype, he doesn't play ominous music, and the dialogue is about as inane and high school-ish as you can get, very realistic actually. There are no jokes, and relatively few scenes designed for maximum shock effect. That's the whole point: the situation was a normal high school day, and the very events, regardless of how you paint them, should be as shocking as anything. All the while you're asking yourself, "How can this possibly lead to a massacre? These are all normal kids," which faithfully recreates the tone of morning leading up the unexpected real life events.

If you're looking for a conventional movie with a clear beginning, middle, end, good and bad guys, glorified heroism and demonized violence, you won't like this movie, it's not a made for TV special, it's closer to an art film.

Some people have expressed anger at the movie, accusing it of some sort of liberal Michael Moore anti-2nd amendment sympathies or heavy handed preaching. Having seen it I can't possibly understand what they're talking about. My suspicion is that they're seeing what they want to see. And that leads me to wonder just what a good movie about Columbine would look like, in their opinions. To me, this is it.
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1/10
single worst movie i have ever seen
laserprinterfeatures9 April 2006
Warning: Spoilers
From the improvisational acting by the supposed students (who do so unbearably awkwardly and without any believability), to the amalgam of student shooter stereotypes rolled together without any concern for synergy, THIS IS THE SINGLE WORST MOVIE I HAVE EVER SEEN.

I have seen a lot of movies. I enjoy artistic film. I enjoy independent film. I don't even need a traditional plot or storyline. I consider myself to be intelligent. It's not that I think the people on IMDb are unintelligent. I think at times they might overestimate the quality of recent films, but it just baffles my mind that even accounting for all difference of opinion, this movie could achieve an average score of over 5.

SPOILERS? I don't know if this is really a spoiler, but I just wanted to be sure... The ending was pointless. Great, we don't see a shot and there's suspense. Maybe someone will find that intelligent just like the other vague directions thrown in and odd shots which desperately hope to confuse someone into believing there's something beneath the surface of this ridiculously simple and poorly executed piece of trash.
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1/10
I hereby disown Gus Van Sant and Roger Ebert
old-dude14 October 2005
Warning: Spoilers
*** Spoilers *** Wow. This movie Elephant was so bad. I encourage everyone to not see it. Personally, I have a high tolerance for boredom but some of you probably do not. If it is possible to die from tedium then this flick is the litmus test. Inert as an unconscious ELEPHANT, this thing plods along till you want to pull your hair out. MOTHER-OF-PEARL this thing is so pretentious that it is almost laughable. Ugh. I am not going to harp on any details but I would like to make a couple of personal observations. First Roger Ebert's reviews are worthless. The fact that he raved about this movie while dropping GVS's name and stating his warped views on the media verses movies is proof enough. He is just too much of an insider and an academic for most of us. Find a prolific reviewer here on IMDb that you agree with and read his/her reviews as a better guide. Second personal point, Gus Van Sant's success has gone to his head. This movie is not even a good "typical day" at a high school. Or at least not any high school that I have been to. GVS has directed several of my favs (Drugstore Cowboy, To Die For, My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting) so like a moron I assume Elephant will at worst be misguided. Geez Louise was I wrong. Moral of the story: Never trust a director or a movie critic. If you liked Elephant then I strongly suggest you also see Warhol's Sleep (1963). I am afraid that Elephant is to GVS as Heaven's Gate was to Cimino. (now imagine the distant ring of the death knell)
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1/10
Unrealistic & Stupid
ryanherenow19 February 2006
Warning: Spoilers
WARNING: INCLUDES SOME REFERENCES TO SPECIFIC MOVIE SCENES (SPOILER)

I go to a large high school and I can say with absolute certainty that this movie could not be less realistic than if people started acquiring mystical powers and began flying. It is completely idiotic to think that this movie would be anywhere close to what a real school shooting situation would be. Since when is a high school so serene and silent during a massacre and even before it occurred. People wouldn't just laugh when they heard gun shots and screams nearby. There were even people who walked around silently apparently not seeing the flames or dead bodies before being shot. Nobody seemed to be very intelligent and for some reason, people repeatedly ran past clearly marked exits instead of out them. People who learned of the shooting early on didn't make any attempt to contact the administration or police and instead told people "don't go inside" but gave no reason leading nobody to listen. People who escaped mostly just calmly viewed the burning building as if they were watching a TV commercial - the only sign of fear was screams that penetrated the silence at odd times and people silently jogging past in different directions. Using common sense and the school shooting that have been recorded on video tape (think Columbine) show that people act differently - more sensibly. Hopefully, those who know little about high schools/school violence haven't been lead to assume that this is a typical rendition of a shooting. This movie was made very strangely in an artsy sort of fashion that does not suit the topic at all.
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1/10
Awful simply awful
zennikku_1022 January 2008
Warning: Spoilers
I had high expectation going into the movie "Elephant" and was extremely disappointed. This movie is a look in the day of a school shooting, much like Columbine. It takes the audience through the high school and some of it's students, basically their day to day activities following up to the shootings.

The movie has been praised for its unbiased look at theses events. It's true it doesn't take any sides and offers no real explanation for the horrible events that transpired. It also doesn't show anything about the students involved either victims or victimizers. This movie was painful for me to watch. There is really nothing good I can say about it. But there are lots of things that I can complain about. I am still baffled at the praise this movie received and maybe I just don't get this style of film making but this is the worst movie I have seen in a very long time and I believe it deserves to be in the IMDb bottom 100.

My first problem with the movie is its pace. It has very long sequences of people walking around, nothing more but people walking around and we see every step that person takes from point A to point B for no good reason other than to see them walking. There is also a one minute sequence showing the sky and clouds, nothing more for a full minute. Again, maybe I just don't get these films but that to me isn't artistic or edgy it's pretentious and boring.

The film makers try to create an atmosphere or reality and in my opinion they fail miserably. The "objective" view they try and create just takes away from the story they're trying to tell. Essentially, the people watching the movie don't care what happens to any of these characters because we don't know any of them. How are we supposed to care who dies if we don't find anything about them besides how the back of their heads look when they walk? The only thing that we do learn about the students are a group of "popular" girls who are superficial and don't eat and then throw up what they do eat. It doesn't show us anything, not the people being attacked nor the people attacking. So we are left to believe that theses two kids who know nothing about just woke up one day and decided to shoot the school. WHY?! What took them to such horrible and violent actions? This bothered me so much about the movie, and it bothers me even more that no one seemed to mind. While other movies are attacked for their lack of character development this one is praised.

The last thing that bothered me about this movie was the acting. If they were trying to make this look real they should have hired actors that could actually act. I swear the dialog sounded like that of a soap opera. It was terrible, not like they had a world shattering script to work with. The most random things happened for no good reason. There's a scene where a boy is crying and this girl enters and asks him if he's OK and that he's crying and that's it, that's the entire scene. Nothing really happens through out the movie.

This movie had the potential to be great. And I get that the film makers wanted to show us a glimpse of the school shootings and still remain objective. That's fine but they could have told a story while they were at it. They could have gotten the audience invested in the film by showing us the lives of these students, who they were, what they did, what they were going to do. Most importantly they could have showed us why these two teenage boys decided to shoot up their school. Instead we get over an hour of people walking and extremely bad acting. So disappointing.
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10/10
VanSant's best thus far?
davidals24 May 2004
Gus VanSant's ELEPHANT isn't an unquestionable masterpiece, but it's close. I found it to be hypnotic and gripping, and in spite of knowing how things would end, I still found the ending to be devastating.

The lone flaw I can identify is originality - this film owes a tremendous debt to certain international directors (Bela Tarr and an earlier Irish ELEPHANT, along with current maverick directors like Abbas Kiarostami, Hirokazu Kore'eda and Tsai Ming-liang) in both look and perspective, and it's not the only recent American film to make effective use of poetic imagery: FAR FROM HEAVEN, LOST IN TRANSLATION, CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES, RAISING VICTOR VARGAS all took a similar approach to their subject matter, and were all just as effective.

But VanSant's style has matured - the sky scenes in ELEPHANT seem to quote DRUGSTORE COWBOY, and in both films they symbolize the passage of time, the general drift of life, and in opening with such a scene, VanSant is offering a subtle warning that ELEPHANT is poetic and interpretive, not a docudrama or realistic take on high school shootings, and shouldn't be taken as such. Characters drift through the day, knowing each other at mostly superficial levels (not moving beyond the level of stereotypes), which feels like what I remember high school to often be, and VanSant has no interest or need to move beyond that - to 'read into' these characters, or have them make grand speeches and gestures would've only made this film preposterous.

ELEPHANT isn't about the media (which is ubiquitous), homosexuality (a random genetic occurrence found in any setting), bullies (which exist everywhere as well, though for psychological or sociological reasons) or any variety of high school caste system - it's about the randomness of violence, and the first two thirds of this film - in both the gliding long shots following characters (and the audio, with conversations drifting in and out), and the fragmented timeline (shifting back and forth in time as it moves from one character to another) - is a startling portrayal of the random, anonymous nature of an average day at school. It could be noted that the school is just a location of convenience in VanSant's hands; this film (or the incidents depicted in it) could be set anywhere, which is partly the point. In much of the world, random, senseless violence is always a possibility, which is really what this film observes and (in the horror of the depiction) protests, and it's just as much of a tragedy when it occurs in a generic, random, average setting (like this school and the people in it), as when it occurs in a dramatic, unusual setting that creates martyrs and heroes.

A very challenging film, in the best of ways. For quite a while, we've seen a number of films attempt to explore similar themes (most interestingly, many of Stanley Kubrick's films), often going for the opposite approach - startling an audience with intensity and violence: the heavy-handed brutality of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (the most brilliant example of shock tactics used effectively, though lacking the subtlety that makes other Kubrick films stronger), or Larry Clark's far more exploitative and dull KIDS (a genuinely sloppy and anticlimactic film which seems to exist mainly to give a sheltered audience a few 'shocking' cheap thrills to get off on, offering few insights that hadn't already been offered elsewhere). ELEPHANT stuns primarily by taking the opposite route - languid and poetic - which ultimately makes it all the more powerful.
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Making a vacuum out of a tragedy
adamk-210 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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1/10
70 and something minutes of boredom
sevdah21 February 2007
Warning: Spoilers
An actual massacre happened in Littleton , we all know about it . Great tragedy , absolutely horrid thing . And what do the makers of " Elephant " do with this extremely strong and powerful material ? They create a disaster of a movie . It was like trying to make a gallon of lemonade by using just a couple of lemons . So the result has to be almost unwatchable - at least to me .

The author seemed to have started from the assumption that long scenes devoid of any significant events , confusing ending , lack of acting , lack of real characters , and sadistic and tedious filming of absolutely boring and trivial behavior is what the art's all about . Come on , what's so artsy and creative about a camera that simply follows a kid on his way through the school halls that goes on and on for minutes without any other event worth mentioning ? We don't even get to know who these kids actually are - there's too much time spent on showing banalities of an everyday life . That's supposed to be a movie about one of the worst school shootings ever ? If so , that's one of the worst movies ever that cover the subject . I couldn't take it in just one sitting but in three - and it's just a little over one hour long . Dentists can use it instead of anesthetics , psychiatrists can use it to cure insomniacs .It's mind - numbing , hypnotizing in it's slowness and apathy .

But hey , if it's boring , it will be recognized as art . At least you can't say it's just entertainment 'cause there's nothing entertaining about it .

I'd actually like to rate it with a 0 , but since 0 is not available ,here's 1 out of 10 . More than enough , as far as I'm concerned .
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1/10
This is not a movie.
Josh_Ryan23 July 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Normally, movies have certain things in them. A script, being one, and actor(s), being another. Sure, there are many more things to be involved, but in simplified terms, these are two of the core pieces of a film. Elephant, amazingly enough, seems to have neither.

For 3 million dollars, you think some of it could have been spent either hiring someone to write a script with cohesive dialogue as opposed to letting these terrible no-name actors seemingly make up their lines, or they could have spent a little bit of money and hired decent independent/low-budget actors who could have actually brought something to the characters. Instead, a complete lack of script and acting talent combine to form this voltron of bad movies.

As predictable as always, film student types will hail this movie as having moved them, or shown them things they hadn't seen before, or whatever recycled crap these "artists" get shoved down their throats by their unemployed teachers. This movie shows nothing, creates nothing, and explores nothing. Nothing about it is shocking or revealing as Van Sant makes no effort to explore the characters in the movie other than a superficial treatment that consists mostly of watching people walk around. People will say, "oh, but thats the point, that it is superficial," or "it's supposed to be detached, blah blah blah." Its crap. I'm sick of people defending movies that do nothing for the medium. The characters in this "film" are the most two-dimensional I've ever seen. You get minimal insight into their lives, their families, their problems, and whatever else might have made an interesting movie.

(Now be careful, this may be a spoiler for you if you live under a rock, so watch out!) So, how am I supposed to care about these kids? It's obvious that they're gonna get gunned down, and unfortunately, that's all I was looking forward to so I could finally pop this movie out of the DVD player and immediately return it.

All van Sant did was take advantage of a touchy subject in the media and make a 20 minute movie that he stretches into an 80 minute with 60 minutes of people walking. What this movie needed was good, witty dialogue to keep you intrigued and make you feel like you could have know some of the people in this movie. Of course, that would have required actors, as well, but even these kids would have been much better with some direction. All i could think of when watching this pile of feces was the scene in "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" when Gus van Sant is too busy counting money to direct a scene, although I doubt he even made it the one day shoot that "Elephant" seems to have been.

I could go on and on about other things, mostly technical in terms of errors, lighting, continuity, and blatant lack of effort, but I've already wasted enough time on this movie.
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7/10
Elegantly Disturbing and Shallow
WriterDave3 October 2005
I've never been a believer in Gus Van Sant the auteur. "Drugstore Cowboy" was a quasi-entertaining and promising first feature most notable for its pretty North Western scenery and the even prettier Heather Graham in her film debut, but nothing too special ever followed, and the "Pscyho" remake was an abomination on every level. Van Sant's mainstream films were successful for reasons beyond his artistic input. "To Die For" heralded Nicole Kidman's first tour de force, and "Good Will Hunting" launched the careers of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck for better and for worse.

Here, with "Elephant" Van Sant returns to the same pretty North Western scenery (just an in "Drugstore Cowboy" the movie was filmed on location in Portland, Oregon) and populates it with even prettier young men and women sleepwalking through an "interpretation" of the events of the Columbine Massacre. There's an elegant listlessness to the camera-work as Van Sant lulls us into a beautifully mundane day in the life of some random high school students. There's a creepy undercurrent, not only in the voyeuristic way in which he films his young charges, but also in the long lingering single shots of students walking through hallways and sidewalks from behind. Suddenly, as the plot of two alienated young men comes to fruition, you realize that the camera-work is meant to copy the "killer's-eye-view" of the violent and sadistic video games the young men play before making it a reality at their school. There's a rising tension that few film-makers have been able to craft, and for that Van Sant deserves accolades.

For all the artificial prettiness, this is without a doubt a highly disturbing viewing experience. In the end, some of it seemed too random (what was the point of the "Benny" character or the kiss in the shower?), and it culminates ambiguously with all the loose ends untethered. A more capable story-teller would have offered a conclusion, but all Van Sant leaves us is with some haunting classical music and beautiful shot of a cloud covered North Western sky.
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7/10
THE TRUTH HURTS
RinoBortone9127 December 2019
Even if the movie never takes over or excel and is not a masterpiece as expected, Gus Van Sant, using a casual spontaneous cast, indeed true, directs this film with simplicity and with one intent: to tell the truth. Although the film is a film, therefore a fictional work, it tries to catapult us there, right into that school, crossing our paths with those of the boys. The truth is uncomfortable, but it is this and it is told to us with respect and clarity, a frightning clarity.
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9/10
Beautiful, sensitive and chilling
transatlantic-drawl17 February 2004
There are very few films which manage to keep the entire audience seated through the credits, but this is one of those few, at least at the screening I attended. Ok, so the abrupt nature of the ending may also have had something to do with that, but I felt that rare feeling of total dislocation and nausea once the film was over, so realistic and horrific was the violence.

This disjointed examination of the causes of a Columbine style shooting works so much better, I think, than a 'straight' drama would have done. In destroying our expectations of a traditional narrative and avoiding what could have easily become cliched characterization, Gus Van Sant also demonstrates what the probable reality of a situation like this would have been, which is senseless, anti-heroic and totally random. A lesser version of this story would have had Michelle, the geeky outcast, or Benny, the brave and silent student who helps a distressed student out of a window become heroes. Their inherent goodness or strength would have them saved. Here, they are simply snatched away from us without glory, fanfare or mourning.

Van Sant's method of using long shots without dialogue or cuts works brilliantly, not only lending the film a doomy atmosphere, but also a highly lyrical quality that captures perfectly the isolation and loneliness of these characters, so often unable to communicate. These kids talk about nothing, and everything, their brief, clipped conversations pregnant with subtext. It is as close as a fictional film has come to creating truly believable, real people in recent memory (Harmony Korine 'Kids' also comes to mind).

Being less than two years out of school, one of the elements I appreciated most was the way in which the film captured the social structures of school, and that all enveloping feeling that everything is so important. After all this delicate build up, the shooting feels like a truly cataclysmic, apocalyptic event. That Van Sant shoots one seemingly unimportant scene from three points of view further enhances the sense of the randomness, and at the same time the inevitability of this event. The violence itself is extremely well handled, never glorifying or even being too explicit, and is yet completely devastating.

The only area of the film that I felt was unconvincing was the build up that we saw from the killers point of view. Having them watch a documentary about Hitler seems too heavy handed, and the nature of the relationship between the two is far too undersketched, and unnecessarily complicated by having then kiss in the shower.

Ultimately however, this is a powerful film, beautifully and sensitively made. It is one of those films, alongside Schindler's List that should be compulsory viewing for school children. It's shocking nature would be best utilized for people of this age, as I feel it would no doubt help kids to think more carefully about their actions to others.
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1/10
False and idiotic
soft_warewolf12 March 2006
Warning: Spoilers
i watched this movie hoping it would be an actual reconstruction or show a realistic perspective of the situation.

and its not, nothing of what happens in the movie is anywhere near the truth. They weren't gay, they both killed themselves, it started in the kitchen not the library, they were listening to music on headphones while doing it.. i don't know anymore than that, and i was hoping i could learn more from the film but its just deceitful.

in fact, the overly colorless and negative view of the perpetrators makes me on their side. If i were in the family with them i would sue.

it looks to me as the movie shows them in a such a neutral light that everyone will feel neglect and suspicion to anybody since anyone could be next, this is not true, they had real problems and deserve to be shown as they actually were.
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Not Just a Typical Teen Movie
Galina_movie_fan18 June 2004
It's been over five years now but we still try to understand why Columbine happened. As exploration of the tragic and shocking event, poetic, poignant, and sadly under-seen "Elephant" has no equals. The film did not have a lot of press, and my local video store had only one copy sitting on the bottom shelf.

There could be different reasons for the title: it could've came from the old saw about the elephant in the room no one notices, or from the legend of four blind men who only could feel one part of the animal and described the whole as a part; or it could've come from the fact the elephants have a good memory and remember all insults.

The film shows several kids who just spend a typical day in a typical suburban American High school that ends up in a massacre. "Elephant" asks questions: What was it like to be there that day? Who could've seen it coming? What does it mean to be an American teenager and live in the world where it happens? For many of the film's characters those questions will never be answered.

"Elephant" is painfully honest and sincere about the complexities of teenage life - the time when one tries to achieve impossible - to be unique and to fit with the crowd.

I think "Elephant" is the best film about teenagers since - well, the only one that comes to my mind is "Welcome to the Dollhouse" (1995) by Todd Solondz.

I think it is one of the best anti - violence films ever.
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1/10
don't believe the hype
mcintireallen27 August 2006
Warning: Spoilers
This movie sucks. It has nothing to say, and offers no wisdom about the incident. It is simply a re-enactment, and an incredibly boring one at that. Naturally, the ending is entertaining from a graphical perspective, but the director really was not home when he put together this film. The hype from the film festivals is just the typical movie industry orgy about blowing a lot of hot air about a 'critical issue of our time'. I expect this sort of thing from the Academy Awards, but I am sorry to see the European film festivals are just as subject to 'group think' and hype as the Americans. The issue may be serious, but the movie is simply a base attempt to capitalize on a news event.
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a simple and amazing film
Nutcase825 September 2004
A refreshing film that was so simple that all of the complicatedness of the motives was so simply explained, and it worked. Not to mention the cinematography and lengthy shots were amazing. Also, from a 52 year old man, I expected worse of high school student dialogue, but boy was I surprised. Being in high school myself, I completely was convinced of this being actual high school dialogue, perhaps because much of it was improvised. I just cannot describe my feelings after watching the movie, like when most finish great films. It was realistic and simple, yet went to levels of insanity.

p.s.--the sound design was absolutely fantastic
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3/10
Disappointing, flaccid and lacking in courage
debblyst9 October 2003
I went to see "Elephant" with mixed expectations: after all, it won the Palme d'Or in Cannes (+ best direction prize) this year over the new film by Haneke, Von Trier's "Dogville", Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River", Denys Arcand's "Les Invasions Barbares" etc. I used to think Van Sant's films ranged from OK to ho-hum, but "Good Will Hunting" seemed awfully mellow, and I was later traumatized by his atrocious remake of "Psycho", which is certainly one of the most inept and incomprehensible Hollywood ventures ever. Well, "Elephant" turns out to be a major disappointment!

At first glance, "Elephant" is just another of Van Sant's mixed bag: some qualities (the imaginative camera-work, the throbbing subject, his refusal to play the accelerated beat that is a disease in Hollywood films) and the quota of letdowns (the stereotyped characters, the poor acting, the "mod" editing, the tentative script). But at the end of the day, it's the kind of film that for people like me - a Third World South American citizen - is above all a chance to find out what a U.S. independent filmmaker shows and thinks about the state of his country when faced with tragic, traumatic happenings, such as the mass killing perpetrated by a white middle-class educated teenager living in an well-organized rich city (it looks rich to me) in the most powerful nation on earth.

In a very "soft" way - so soft it might go unnoticed - Van Sant portrays the American educational system as a failure, a monumental bore that produces superficial, empty minds, a sort of walking zombies -- and do they walk in this movie!! We can also witness the gigantic gap in communication between parents and kids, the superficiality of relationships (among family, friends, lovers, teachers and pupils), and the very real threat of neo-fascism in America (as well as in Europe -- q.v. the countless documentaries on war, ballistics, guns, 3rd Reich, Hitler, etc etc which are produced every year by America, British and German TV and which are "exported" throughout the world through cable, inevitably leading to influence and even lure part of the young audience).

Above all, we can witness America's fascination with guns and violence -- I wonder if U.S. filmmakers realize how oppressive, repulsive and disturbing it is for non-U.S. audiences to see guns, bombs and explosions in virtually EVERY American movie, even in comedies and cartoons! But Van Sant decides not to handle directly the risky issues (as Michael Moore did in his "Bowling for Columbine"). Instead he decides to show his loving compassion for these kids and portray them as sad, naive victims of loser parents and a flawed system.

Well, some alarming thoughts occur for Third-World audiences (such as myself and my friends, for instance): hey, he's not talking about poor orphaned abandoned American kids with no access to education, food, welfare, health, work, future - he's showing privileged, white, healthy, pink-faced, cereal-eating kids, with every mean at their disposal to make political decisions and establish new directions for their generation in U.S. culture, and instead they choose to spend their time in cheer-leading, gossiping, playing video-games, bulimic puking, watching TV, the internet and, in extreme but not so rare cases, playing with guns and killing each others. Why won't Van Sant SHOW us WHAT HAPPENED to this generation, how they got to be this numb and desensitized?

I was particularly disgusted that Van Sant decided that the killer should be a sexually inexperienced, Beethoven-loving teenager with a closeted gay tendency. Phewww! What a fabulous contribution to the gay movement!! And to classical music!!

"Elephant" is a visually attractive (in a hypnotic sense) but shallow, soft-hearted, ideologically flaccid film, not to be taken in the same league of courageous movies about teen violence like Hector Babenco's "Pixote", Sebasti√°n Cordero's "Ratas Rateros Ratones", Fernando Meirelles's "City of God", Michael Moore "Bowling for Columbine", or even Larry Clark's controversial "Kids" and "The Bully". Maybe Van Sant's romantic, detached and "neutral" position on such important and eminently political matters is the most striking and disappointing feature in this film. How can one be NEUTRAL about such matters??

After the flops of "Psycho" and "Finding Forrester", it seems Van Sant is healthily going back to his beginnings in low-budget independent films, and that's great news. But maybe his "walking movies" (as opposed to "road movies") with their lethargic pace, political neutrality and reflexive mood aren't the best (and most respectful) way to treat tragic, traumatic, urgent issues like the repeated episodes of mass-killing in American schools. I hope he'll find other themes better suited to his lightweight style.
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