Thankfully, Elephant redresses the balance. It’s a haunting, genuinely experimental snapshot of high school American life that explodes into tragedy after two teenage gunmen enter the school and start picking off kids. Made in the wake of the Columbine massacre, Van Sant adopts the blankest tone possible – there’s no judgement and very little drama. White names on black introduce the characters – Elias, Eric, Acadia, Michelle, Nathan – but each could be any kid in any school.
There’s a budding teen photographer, a long-haired kid whose drunken dad gets him into trouble with his teacher, the high school hunk, his beautiful trophy girlfriend, the shy nerd and a trio of body-obsessed girls. Van Sant follows them as they go about an average day at school, occasionally moving away to show other details of the school, sometimes shifting from one character to another as they pass, and frequently replaying the same moments from different perspectives. It’s a shock to see the teen killers – Eric and Alex – enter the school so early on, but the minutes leading up to the beginning of the massacre are repeated an almost unbearable four times throughout the first hour. It’s almost a relief when the bullets start flying, such is the level of tension that Van Sant builds.
As for the two gunmen themselves, it does seem initially that Van Sant has fallen prey to some media clichés about America’s troubled youth – violent computer game playing, Nazi-obsessed and homosexual. But these kids barely know who Hitler is – they are watching a documentary about Nazism because it's something expected of them, not because they are particularly interested in the subject. And as for their embrace in the shower shortly before setting off for their killing spree, as one says to the other: "I’ve never kissed anyone before". They just want to experience sex before their certain death, and nothing we see in the build-up to these characters is as shocking as the calm, almost cheerful detachment with which they carry out their ‘mission’.
Elephant is also a stylistic return to form for Van Sant. He uses dreamlike slow motion, time-lapse photography, and long tracking and steadicam shots, and the audio design is superb, mixing haunting piano music with an often disorientating jumble of voices and ambient sounds. What does the film have to say? Nothing perhaps, but maybe that’s the point – the title (appropriated from Alan Clarke’s 1989 film about Northern Ireland) refers to a huge, obvious thing that everyone chooses to ignore. And that’s the bottom line here – Van Sant is showing things as he’s sees them, and what happens next is out of his hands.
Vaguely arty American director whose films never seem quite as satisfying as they should. Drugstore Cowboy remains his best effort, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues undoubtedly his worst. My Own Private Idaho, To Die For, Columbine shootings-based Elephant and Kurt Cobain-inspired Last Days have their fans, and Good Will Hunting was a big success, but the scene-for-scene Psycho remake must be his oddest venture. After a decade of experimentation, including desert trek oddity Gerry, he returned to the mainstream in 2008 with the award-winning biopic Milk.