Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” won the Palm d’Or and Best Director prizes at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, marking the resurgence of a gifted filmmaker whose talents seemed tamed recently in service of more traditional dramas. If “Drugstore Cowboy” (1989) and “My Own Private Idaho” (1991), were dazzlingly wrought portraits of lives on the fringes of society, “Elephant” meanders through the more recognizable territory of high school. More importantly, it’s bravura filmmaking, subtler in approach than either “Cowboy” or “Idaho,” but just as exhilarating.
The title of Van Sant’s movie refers, among other things, to the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. The conspicuous pachyderm, in this case, is the issue of gun violence in American schools, something that stampeded through our collective consciousness in the late-90s, brought most vividly to mind by the Columbine incident. In “Elephant,” Van Sant sets out to talk about it. Just how incisively or effectively he manages to do so, though, is frustratingly questionable.
The movie offers a portrait of an American high school. Van Sant’s characters are students whose paths intersect in the course of a routine day. There’s nothing routine, though, in Van Sant’s approach as he weaves together a mosaic of delicately interlaced storylines. “Elephant’s” most bustling scenes in hallways, offices and classrooms are so assuredly choreographed that they recall the most adroit Altman movies. The movie builds on a cyclical structure, following one storyline before flashing back to pick up another. In this way, Van Sant fleshes out vividly believable characters, bringing them, one storyline at a time, to the edge of his narrative, while allowing a hypnotic, unsettling tension to hang over the movie as we anticipate its inevitable outburst of violence.
Harris Savides’ camera glides along in step with “Elephant’s” largely non-professional, teenage cast. The movie’s immaculate visuals are matched by Leslie Shatz’s expressive sound design, intermingling Beethoven’s classical piano with ambient noise and wild sound to arrive at a disconcerting blend of disparate elements that perfectly serves the movie’s tone.
Van Sant shrewdly withholds judgment and steers clear of moralizing his subject. But, after it’s finished, you’re still wondering what it all adds up to. “Elephant” may be pointing to the insidiousness of violence, lurking in the woodwork of our society, no more unusual than the rest of the banalities of high school life. But Van Sant ends his movie so abruptly, glibly cutting away from his final scenes, that he left me to trip all over myself to come up with the movie’s justification or even any sense of its message. “Elephant” is one of this year’s boldest movies, technically, but, in refusing to assert any point-of-view about what troubles modern American youth, Van Sant’s loses heart and flees the scene of the crime.
Written/Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Elias McConnell, Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Carrie Finklea