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Elephant  (2004)


Starring: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson

Director: Gus Van Sant

Rating: R

Distributor: HBO Home Video

Release Date: May 4, 2004
Review posted: May 17, 2004

Spoilers: Minor


Reviewed by Dylan Grant




Winner of the Palme díOr and Best Director prizes at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, Elephant takes us inside a typical American high school, where a seemingly ordinary day is violently interrupted.




A car swerves down an idyllic, tree-lined street, side-swiping a parked car and almost running down a kid on a bicycle. This is Johnís (John Robinson) ride to school, his drunken father too inebriated to keep the car moving in a straight line. John has to take the keys and drive himself. The first act of Elephant is spent introducing the high school teenagers and showing us that they all have problems, their own stresses that they live with day in and day out.


Elephant perfectly captures the banality of the high school experience, the cliques, the classes, the condescending administrators, all while capturing how, in the lives of these students, the most trivial is also what matters most. We watch the day unfold in pieces, getting enough little clues here and there to know that we are not following any linear path, but rather seeing events that are happening at the same time. In this way, Elephant is a masterpiece of form.


Because we know how this day will end, tension builds through the film, even as we are lulled into the whirlpool of banality that surrounds each of the characters. We know what is coming, but it is still a shock when it actually arrives. The cold, dead looks on the faces of the killers betraying nothing, not even the slightest hint of emotion. When Alex (Alex Frost) shoots his partner in crime at the end, he is clearly so far gone that all he sees are moving targets.


When the shooting starts and people start to flee the school, there is an interesting role reversal when Johnís father (Timothy Bottoms) comes running up to him. The son is actually comforting the father, as though he knows something the father does not. Perhaps that is the final message, if any, that we are to be left with. Ultimately, though, Elephant is not a film about messages. We are simply shown life unfolding. The why of it all is up to us to figure out.




The fullscreen and widescreen presentations are both available on this disc. The picture comes through crisp and clean. Van Santís use of color is integral to the film, and everything comes through here just as it did on the big screen.




Sound is important to this film, telling a good part of the story and cluing us in as to where in the filmís time sequence we are. The ambient sounds come through sharply. This is not the film you would use to benchmark your new home theater system, but the audio is vital, and the presentation is excellent.




The Theatrical Trailer is hauntingly beautiful. This is one of the best trailers I have seen in a long time. It had me hooked from the first viewing.


On the Set of Elephant Ė Rolling Through Time (12:00) is a quick, quiet behind-the-scenes documentary, much in the same mood as the film itself. We see the filmmakers shooting a scene on the football field, some of the cast members talk about what violence means to them (one of them, ironically, too absorbed in a video game to even look at the camera), and a few quiet moments of Van Sant at the editing table. Though competently filmed, this documentary gives little insight into the film. A few words from the director would have been nice, something about the filmís time structure, whatever ideas he had going into the project, or the choice to work with non-professional actors.


Elephant is a film with an interesting history (it was supposed to be made right after the Columbine incident but the financing fell through; Harmony Korine (Kids) was supposed to write the script but that deal fell through also), and it would have been nice to hear something directly from Van Sant himself. What is here is okay, but there is so much more that could have been explored.


For such a beautiful film, the bonus features are disappointingly sparse. A directorís commentary would have been nice, something with more insight into the film. The features here are decent, but they are lacking in anything beyond superficial interest.




Elephant is the most important, most controversial youth film since Kids. The filmís haunting, hypnotic beauty will stay with you long after the credits have rolled. It should be widely seen. This is also an important work for anyone interested in cinematic composition. Elephant is a thematic and technical masterwork.




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