Saturday, 15 October 2011

Elephant Review

Director: Gus Van Sant
Year: 2003
Starring: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen
Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 81 minutes

I can't begin to imagine how challenging and arduous it would be to make an emotionally disturbing, compelling and haunting picture loosely based on the events of the Columbine High School Massacre of 1999. There is no way to escape controversy or complaint when making a film like this, whether it be fanatics yelling about how inaccurate and disrespectful it is to the victims, or perhaps even family members of those who were murdered on that horrific day. On an accuracy level, they may have the right to be angered - but as a film on its own, it is quite a wonderful spectacle. It is well crafted, brooding and features stellar camera work.

One of the main complaints that I have heard about this film is the long shots of people walking down halls and corridors in the school - I however, was hugely impacted emotionally by these scenes. It gave off a hugely effective message of alienation from society, peers and the world in general. It also helped emphasise how all of these children were simply going about their daily lives, unaware of the horrifying events that were to occur in the coming hours, how doing simple things in a day can suddenly turn to running for your own life. It may not be a message that is relevant to everybody, but for any child who attended Columbine or any school where events like this have taken place, it's extremely relevant, and these scenes were absolutely necessary. One complaint that I do have about these shots is that most of them were to the back of characters, so the emotion that these children felt whilst going through a normal day weren't as thoroughly shown as they could have and should have been. Apart from this, they were very well crafted, emotionally resonant scenes that didn't even have the slightest level of superfluousness about them, to me anyway. They helped to display high school life accurately and made the film even more simple to relate to. 

Another flaw within this film is that some of the characters weren't explained nearly enough - we knew barely anything about most of them, and whilst this may have been intended, it is nice to have area for character development. This didn't stop the characters being interesting however, and as we are taken on the differential routes of their daily lives, we begin to get attached to each character, regardless of how much we actually know about their personal lives. The lack of talking in this film added to how haunting the atmosphere and build-up were, and I feel as though if there were lots of talking within the film, it would have deteriorated the emotion that is supposed to be felt towards the characters and the trauma that they had to go through. Showing the different high school stereotypes had a huge effect on me, showing how much we actually care about cliques and groups, but that when something like this happens, all of that disappears and becomes irrelevant, you are not superior to anyone else - you are just another person. Displaying individuality in this film was hugely important as it emphasised the mindlessness of the killings, and the lack of consideration for the emotions of others by the killers.

A slight problem I noticed within this film was that the bullying scenes towards the future perpetrators didn't show their mental deterioration thoroughly - it was almost as if they were bullied and then out of the blue they decided to go on a shooting rampage. I don't know if Van Sant noticed, but that doesn't really construct much emotion for the audience to feel towards them. The film concentrates on far too many characters for us to feel highly emotional towards them, which is why in that respect, I preferred the documentary 'Zero Hour'. 'Zero Hour' was more effective because it concentrated mainly on the perpetrators of Columbine, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, and whilst I respect Elephant for attempting to concentrate on many characters, it didn't work quite as well as I had hoped it would. However, 'Zero Hour' was based purely on Columbine, whilst this was just a loose adaption of the events. Perhaps also characterisation was not Van Sant's main target for this film, but how the day unfolded and the sheer fact that some people were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and to add an eerie and intense atmosphere throughout the build-up - and this is helped wholly by the lack of dialog in the film. I just felt as if many of the characters weren't explored fully in an emotional sense, and perhaps they could have been if the film had been slightly longer - there are also a few relationships that we are shown over the course of the film, that never feel necessary and are never really explained.

One thing I really admired about this were the transactions that showed the effects of conversations from the perspectives of both characters involved - it was very well done and it emphasised how the smallest things can have the largest and most tragic outcomes. The dark, broody cinematography reflects the emotion and atmosphere within the film brilliantly and chills you to the core. One scene that I am going to pick out is where a pupil at the school is sitting watching television, and on the television there is a documentary about Nazis. If I assume correct, they were attempting to compare Nazis to the perpetrators of the attack - considering that the attack hadn't commenced yet, this felt a little bit rash. It felt as if Van Sant was trying to emphasise how horrific the events were by comparing the attackers to one of the most evil, vindictive groups ever in history, and it felt a little extreme. Nonetheless, I will move on to the most acclaimed part of the film - the massacre itself. It is very moving and powerful. The relaxation on the faces of the killers shows their mental instability and is tremendously haunting. The calmness of some of the students during the massacre also added to this feeling. We are then given a conclusion that will either strangely satisfy you or purely disappoint you. A movie based in these events could be better, and probably will be made better in the future, but it could have been a whole lot worse. Without a doubt, this is worth a watch.


  1. I think this is a very good review, Colin. I agree with most of the conclusions you come to, and I like the way you objectively look at the different possibilities of what Gus Van Sant's intentions were with this film. I will personally never forget "Elephant", because it did something that very few films have managed to do to me: its violent climax truly horrified me. It's nice to see a movie put violence in its shocking place for awhile, being people used to seeing it in cold or humorous contexts most of the time.

  2. The ending was horrifying, and the typical nursery rhyme singing really worked with it. Thanks a lot.

  3. Good review. I saw this a real long time ago and don't remember liking it too much, however, I think a re-watch might change that.

  4. You should give it a re-watch. Don't watch it if you're incredibly tired, though.

  5. You have no reason to feel unsatisfied with this review, great work man. I knew nothing about this film before this review and now I really want to see it. Watching Bowling for Columbine and seeing all the clips from the Columbine massacre is something that really hits me hard, and at the same time fascinates me. So, to learn that this film is based, even if just loosely, on that massacre and that it studies the killers has made me want to see it very badly. Fantastic review man!

  6. Thank you. I haven't seen Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine but I would really like to. I love the guy.

  7. Very brilliant review, Colin. I have not heard of this movie until your review, but I would now like to see this. Nice work