ElephantOctober 3, 2003
Several ordinary high school students go through their daily routine as two others prepare for something more malevolent.
Release Year: 2003
Rating: 7.2/10 (43,964 voted)
Critic's Score: 70/100
Gus Van Sant
Stars: Elias McConnell, Alex Frost, Eric Deulen
A day in the lives of a group of average teenage high school students. The film follows every character and shows their daily routines. However two of the students plan to do something that the student body won't forget.
(as Ellis E. Williams)
An ordinary high school day. Except that it's not.
Release Date: 3 October 2003
Filming Locations: John Adams High School, 5135 NE Columbia Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, USA
Box Office Details
Opening Weekend: $93,356
(26 October 2003)
(8 January 2004)
Did You Know?
Gus Van Sant borrowed the title from Alan Clarke's film of the same name, and thought that it referred to the Chinese proverb about five blind men who were each led to a different part of an elephant. Each man thinks that it is a different thing. What Clarke's title actually referred to was the idea of the "elephant in the room", where something is so obvious that to miss it would be the equivalent of not seeing a huge elephant in an ordinary room, yet is still not recognized out of either stupidity or willful ignorance. In this film, the "elephant in the room" is the homicidal rage of Alex and Eric, which leaves them free to precipitate the last-scene massacre at their school.
When John runs from the school (past the dog) check out the concrete pathways. The first time they are pretty much dry. The second time it looks like it has just been raining – they are very wet.
What? Hey! Where are you going? Come here.
Oh, my God, Dad.
Get in the car. You're gonna be late for school. Come on.
Mom's gonna kill you.
A film that will haunt you
'Elephant' is Gus Van Sant's brilliant and mind-blowing distillation of
teenage alienation and angst. Set on one of those sterile suburban high
school campuses, the film recounts a typical day in the life of a
school – typical that is until it ends in a Columbine-type massacre.
Here is a film in which style does indeed become substance, where the
'meaning' lies in the form and shape of the film itself. Rather than
tell us a conventional 'story,' Van Sant has chosen to give his film
the look and feel of a pseudo-documentary, merely recording the events
and conversations that occur that day, a day we are led to believe is
not unlike every other at that school. Van Sant's prying camera eye
turns us into voyeurs, as we observe the cliquishness, petty
humiliations, and sheer overwhelming banality that have defined high
school life for so many of us. Van Sant uses space brilliantly. Despite
the fact that this is undoubtedly a school with a large student
population, the characters on whom he focuses seem always to be somehow
isolated from almost everyone else around them. None of the characters
we see really seem to have any connection with one another, and even
when they do, it tends to be of only the most superficial kind. They
are like people stranded on their own individual islands, enduring
their suffering alone and in silence. Van Sant sets the tone with his
tracking shots of characters strolling down seemingly endless corridors
heading to nowhere in particular, making little or no human contact as
they go. The camera, throughout the film, seems to have a mind of its
own, often avoiding what seems to be a major plot point and, instead,
zeroing in on something that seems to have little or no real
importance. Then through the process of editing, he weaves nothing less
than a tapestry of alienation. By concentrating so intently on the
seemingly irrelevant minutia of daily life, Van Sant brings to the film
a sense of documentary immediacy most fiction films lack. We are made
privy to bits and pieces of conversation only to have the talk dribble
off as we or the characters turn the corner and move on to the next
group of people. It is the deadening 'sameness,' the insignificance of
so much of what we see and hear that makes this such a sad and haunting
One thing Van Sant refuses to do is try to 'explain' why the killers
act as they do. He's smart enough to know that there is no single
explanation for such behavior, that it arises from a variety of sources
and that it is primarily the product of a general feeling of alienation
in modern society. We see one of the murderers suffering humiliation at
the hands of two schoolmates, the second killer playing a violent video
game and perusing a gun magazine, but these, in and of themselves,
cannot be the sole explanations. At best they are symptoms of a much
deeper societal sickness, one that Van Sant can only hint at but never
fully grasp – for who among us can claim to truly understand it? What
'Elephant' does is to make us focus on and actually see this
spirit-crushing ennui which permeates our culture and which defines
life for so many of our youngsters.
The director has drawn fine work from his cast of talented unknowns.
Their every word, their every gesture rings believable and true. He has
also employed Beethoven's 'Fur Elise' to serve as a haunting refrain
throughout the film, capturing the poignancy of a world in which
beauty, spontaneity and joy seem to have been removed.
There are some who will find 'Elephant' to be slow-moving, empty, arty
and pretentious. For them there are plenty of mindlessly upbeat
depictions of high school life to watch. But for those who can
appreciate a film artist working at the peak of his form, 'Elephant' is
a mesmerizing, vision-altering experience that pushes the boundaries of
the medium and takes us to a place, emotionally, that we haven't ever