Van Sant's mood piece of a film won both the Palme d'Or (best picture) and Best Director prizes at last year's Cannes Film Festival. The New Orleans Film Festival presents a special screening of the film Tuesday at the Prytania.
Elephant is Van Sant's nuanced reaction to the tragic shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999, which left 12 students and one teacher dead. This tragedy and others like it have shown that youth violence has transcended inner-city poverty and plopped itself firmly in middle-class suburbia. Even now, five years later, we still don't know what to do with it.
Van Sant looks at a fatal day at a suburban Portland high school from several angles, following several students from different points on the social spectrum. He often toys with the chronology of events, singling out one in particular in a Rashomon-like exploration of the intersection of lives. There are neutral characters like John (John Robinson), whose benign veneer masks the pain of handling his alcoholic father (Timothy Bottoms), or Elias (Elias McConnell), an aspiring photographer who almost seems to float effortlessly through his world as he practices his craft. And then there are the popular kids, such as happy couple Nathan (Nathan Tyson) and Carrie (Carrie Finklea), who can leave campus with permission and with the greatest of ease. But then there's the insecure Michelle (Kristen Hicks), who's trying to get through school as invisibly as possible. And, finally, there are Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen), a troubled twosome who very quickly become our primary concern.
Van Sant plays it unrelentingly objectively with these characters; he trades on their normalcy and never passes judgment while he slowly builds the narrative tension that suggests these lives will all cross paths one way or another. Tragedy hangs in the air like an unpaid bill.
So much of this film is about context, or perhaps the lack thereof. After the Columbine and other shootings, the biggest question after "Why did they do it?" was "Who are these kids?" And so naturally follows the expectation that any film dealing with this type of tragedy would try to answer either of these questions. Van Sant toys with the notion of context here almost to the point of aggravation.
There are only hints of what kind of people these students are, particularly the killers. We know through just a couple minutes of scenery that Alex is picked on by classmates -- but that's it. There are wisps of detail -- his uncommon talent for playing Beethoven on the piano, his observational skills -- but Van Sant runs away from the supposed obligation to probe deeply into any one character's psyche. And therein may lie his brilliance; how much do you really need to know? Frost is particularly unnerving; his soft face is reminiscent of John Cusack's Lloyd Dobler of Say Anything fame. They're both vulnerable characters, their eyes wounded by pain; but where Lloyd is lovesick but hopeful, Alex's eyes have a dulled malevolence about them. Spooky stuff.
As in his previous work, 2002's Gerry, Van Sant (working with cinematographer Harris Savides) is obsessed with the movement of his characters, hoping their body language will reveal the clues. During one long passage, we follow the awkward Michelle from the practice fields to the girls locker room -- both display cases for the human form. She is admonished by a P.E. teacher for wearing sweat pants instead of the required gym shorts, and inside the locker room, while slender classmates shower and gossip in the nude, she slips her arms, one at a time, out of her sweatshirt sleeves instead of pulling the sweater up from the bottom and over her head. It's such a subtle but telling detail about insecurity.
After Elephant came out last year, some critics accused the film of being a cinematic exercise -- or worse, that it lacked feeling. Well, what did they expect? An ABC After School Special? (It should be noted that Van Sant's idol is Mr. Warm Fuzzy himself, Stanley Kubrick.) If Elephant feels crafted at times, maybe it's because Van Sant is trying to craft a mood, a tone that we rarely see in movies about teens, which invariably are front-loaded with so much artifice that you just know they're attempting to conceal an obvious ignorance of subject matter. Conversely, Elephant -- however enigmatic, however cool its emotions-- feels all too real in showing that something so abnormal can spring from something so normal. And that reality is one scary animal.