Writer/director Gus Van Sant could never be accused of taking the easy road. He’s been an indie provocateur whose long career has involved Keanu Reeves, Uma Thurman with giant thumbs, villainous weather girls, and Sean Connery uttering the immortal line, “You’re the man now, dawg.” After 1997’s Good Will Hunting made over $100 million, Van Sant had an artistic blank check. He chose to do a shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho, now with added scenes of masturbation at no extra charge. So, as you can tell, there’s no telling what Van Sant will do next. On the heels of the experimental 2002 Gerry (where Matt Damon and Casey Affleck wander around and that’s it) comes his Cannes-winning portrait of high school violence, Elephant. But is Elephant an influential eye opener, or does it fall short of its artistic intentions?
Van Sant’s exploration on school violence is startling, realistic, and ultimately a failure. Van Sant does a great job of echoing the mundane reality of high school life with long, elegant tracking shots and numbing classical music; however, Elephant merely becomes an overindulgent and pretentious art exercise. There’s little below the surface, and Van Sant’s actors do little in their brief gasps of screen time to empathize with.
There are some jolting moments of violence but by the time they arrive Elephant has worn out its welcome. Once we’re even introduced to a character and thirty seconds later they’re killed off. It’s hard to get emotionally attached to so many characters we get mere fleeting glimpses of before they are murdered in the name of artistic statement. The horror of high school violence is less jarring when you feel nothing for the characters. Some of the scenes are shocking, but by the time the school shooting actually arrives the audience might actually be feeling pangs of guilt over their reluctant happiness that something finally is going on, even if it is students being murdered by their peers.
Van Sant also trades heavily in tired stereotypes, from the sexually promiscuous jock, to the nerdy bookish girl, to a trio of bulimic girls used as shameless comic relief. His teen killers watch documentaries about Hitler, play violent shoot-em-up video games, and, of course, have negligent parents. In a very peculiar scene, before the school shooters march off they share a shower and lament that they’ll never be able to kiss a girl… and then they kiss each other. I don’t know exactly what Van Sant is trying to say and I don’t think he knows either.
This is the longest, most appallingly boring 80 minutes of my life. Elephant’s running time should be brisk, but oh boy does it feel like an eternity. The pacing of the film is practically non-existent. Old women in check-out lanes could move along faster than Elephant. All the drawn out tracking shots give the viewer an eventual idea of the school’s geography, but it also lulls the viewer into a coma. The long bouts of static nothingness set to the soothing classical music might be the downfall for a sleepy audience. Perhaps in the future Elephant will be the cure for insomnia, but right now, in the present, it’s the dullest, most monotonous waste of 80 minutes you could spend in a theater.
Elephant sure takes its time to say a whole lot of nothing. On paper, Elephant could have been an artistic exploration into the reality of high school and the glazed indifference teenagers face in a society of apathy. Instead, Elephant equates cinema verite with real time. It’s not enough we have to watch someone do a film test strip but we have to watch the whole thing in real time. It’s not enough we have to watch one of the school shooters practice piano but we have to watch and listen to the whole thing. It’s not enough to see one inconsequential scene but we have to witness it three different times from alternating points of view. It’s a monumental waste of time for everyone involved, especially the poor audience.
What may be most terrifying about Elephant isn’t that it has no answers for school violence, but that it doesn’t even have the ambition to pose any questions. Van Sant’s followers could have their interest piqued by Elephant, but this film is going to appeal to a very very small number of people (I’m thinking maybe six, tops). Elephant is an artistic overindulgence masquerading as thoughtful meditation.
Nate’s Grade: D