Elephant dir. Gus Van Sant

Opens Fri Nov 7.

There are many faults in Gus Van Sant's Elephant, including subpar acting, a pretentious eye, and an over-saturation of time-lapse photography (by now one of the stalest tools in Van Sant's arsenal). But there is also something mysterious and engaging about it, something that follows you home after you've left the theater. It's a haunting piece of work, one that refuses to take a stand on a weighty social concern, and instead uses light and film stock to bring not the meaning of a tragic event, but the feeling of it, to an audience. It is, in short, pure cinema.

The film opens with what may be an unintentional nod to a video game. The nod: a shot following a speeding car as it swerves and crashes its way down a suburban street, the camera perched somewhat aloft, the lens angled slightly downwards at the car's bumper. The video game being nodded to: the great Grant Theft Auto III (as well as its sequel, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City), which uses nearly the exact same angle as its default viewpoint, and which may be the most violent, morally vacant video game ever created. It's impossible to say whether or not Van Sant intended to copy GTA, but as I settled in to watch Elephant, the connection immediately flew out to me. Here is a film inspired by the 1999 Columbine massacre, and video games--specifically Doom--were a suspect that politicians and pundits singled out as a possible cause for the tragedy. This, it seemed, was an opening--via a simple shot--that suggested much about what was to come. Namely, an examination, and pondering, of our society's violent nature.

Video games, of course, were not the only scapegoats during that terrible time; The Matrix, Marilyn Manson, the NRA, bullies, cliques, poor parenting skills, MTV--each had an accusing finger wagged at it. But when all the bluster and scolding had settled, we were left with the same question about the shooters, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris: Why?

Elephant doesn't offer an answer, doesn't even try to comprehend, and this is a position (or lack thereof) that has troubled some critics. What the film sets out to do is fictionalize Columbine and then give it only a cursory examination; Van Sant isn't interested in answers or solutions (if there are any), but rather, the feeling of the day--as well as the days leading up to it--that Klebold and Harris opened fire. Confining nearly the entire film to a Portland high school on a single day, Van Sant spends the bulk of the picture's 81-minute running time wandering the school's hallways, following students as they breeze past one another. Long stretches of Elephant are made up of lengthy tracking shots of students walking, but nobody attends class--indeed, only two teachers are shown in the film--yet the result somehow comes closer to capturing the essence of high school than any other film I can think of. Classes and what we learned, after all, are not what most of us remember; it's the transitions--from puberty's beginning to its end, from classrooms to lockers where we would interact with friends and occasionally be harassed by enemies--that most of us retain from our formative years.

But all of Elephant's wanderings merely lead up to tragedy, which gives the film a sense of quiet tension that is really quite remarkable; as we watch the kids--all of them real Portland high schoolers--float through their day, all we can do is wait for the first shots to ring out. We sit and wonder which kids--from the pretty blond boy whose father is a drunk, to the gossipy girls who vomit up their lunch, to the shy girl who works in the library--will be the first to be killed, and even though the film never stops on any of the kids long enough for us to build any sort of relationship with them, we worry for them nonetheless. They are, after all, just kids, as are their two classmates, Alex and Eric, who walk into the school dressed in camouflage and carrying stuffed duffle bags.

In Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, there is a heart-wrenching scene where footage from the high school's surveillance cameras is given an airing, the desperate calls from parents to 911 filling the soundtrack. It is, perhaps, the only scene in the film that earns Moore's ham-fisted treatment, perfectly illuminating the horrendous event. In Elephant, Van Sant offers no such sequence--the shooting spree itself, while certainly scary, is not nearly as terrifying as the footage Moore used--but there is a flash of a moment during the melee that is, for lack of a better word, genius: Near the end of the violence, two teenagers--a handsome jock and his girlfriend--stumble into a hallway, panicked and unsure where to go. Suddenly, a hunched-over blur--weighed down by devastating equipment--appears at the far end of the hallway, and the girlfriend gasps, "Oh my God."

It is a truly chilling moment, and in it Van Sant, along with his cinematographer, Harris Savides, manages to relay a sense of what most of us can only imagine was the experience of being in Columbine High School that spring day. Four years after the killings in Colorado, none of us really knows why Klebold and Harris turned to violence, but with Elephant Van Sant has attempted to help us understand what it was like to be there. And for the most part he succeeds. Elephant is troubling and frustrating and far from perfect. It also shouldn't be ignored.