Dir. Gus Van Sant. Starring John Robinson, Alex Frost, Elias McConnell
Elephant is one of the great high school movies ever made because more than any other high school movie I’ve seen it nails the look and feel of what high schools are like. The affluent white high school that the students of this film are at – aside from the fact that no one has anywhere to be, really, and that people appear to wander more or less at will – looks exactly the way those high schools do. The students in this school look just the same as high school students around the nation. Their problems are big enough for high schoolers but not absurd; one boy, John (Robinson) has to manage his drunk father (Timothy Bottoms); three girls are bulimic and, in the way of high school girls, are bulimic together; another girl, Michelle (Kristen Hicks) knows she isn’t pretty and will never get there. In looking at them, one wouldn’t know much about them; by and large they are anonymous figures to everyone else. There are jocks and wannabes, artsy-fartsy types and socially involved sorts. Van Sant gives us windows into several children almost at random, but mostly through the back of their heads. It’s a traditional Van Sant move, but as a choice I think it’s flawless. The camera moves virtually all of the time, as antsy as a fifteen-year-old in a geometry class. But instead of feeling like we’re high school students too, or like we’re part of the school’s population somehow, the moving camera manages to be observational in a way that few moving cameras ever manage to be. We don’t see faces very often, and that depersonalizes not just the activity around the school but the people in it as well just as high school is so frequently depersonalized for those who amble around its long corridors. For the first twenty minutes of the film and more, which is no small amount of time when the action unfolds in less than eighty minutes, we follow kids around the school. As an audience, and as an informed audience which has some idea of what will happen, we’ve been trained to expect the kids to say things which we’ll recall later. No one says anything that memorable, just as no one says anything very memorable on a normal day. Only when John leaves the building and sees two kids dressed in camo and carrying huge bags do we get the sense that something’s wrong. And then Van Sant pulls back and shows us another student, taking away the immediate stimulus for fear.
For the next hour, Van Sant builds the pressure by repeating moments from the perspectives of others. John and Elias (McConnell) share a moment in the hallway where the latter asks to take a picture of the former. John poses, smacks his butt on the count of three, and then asks Elias what he’s doing this weekend. Elias can’t go out, his parents are jerks. It happens, John says consolingly. Both boys go their separate directions. We see it first from John’s perspective at the short end of the hallway; we see it later from Elias’ from the far end, where he has farther to walk to reach John. Later still, it turns out that Michelle was in that scene as well; she stayed on the wall, far away from the boys, jogging to get past them as she gets closer and closer. John goes outside and sees the two boys, Alex and Eric (Frost and Eric Deulen) loaded for bear. He takes their advice and runs away, starting to warn people. Three girls – Nicole, Brittany, and Jennifer, each of whom are as indistinguishable as their names would suggest – are picking at their lunches when one of them sees John outside. Is that a dog? one of them asks. He has a dog at school? (John does, indeed, play with a dog for a moment or two before Alex and Eric show up.) We’d seen these girls before; they had gawped at one of those too-handsome-for-school boys, a guy named Nathan (Nathan Tyson), earlier on during Nathan’s long walk from the soccer field around the school building. (Don’t look at him too long, one of the girls warns the others. His girlfriend will slap you right in the hallway.) The movie is built on these encounters which aren’t encounters. People notice one another existing for whatever reason – they’ve heard the guy’s name, or they can see the guy’s cute, or they can tell the guy is hurting – and the film uses those moments as transitions. Everyone’s in high school together, even if being in high school necessarily means that you only know like, six people total. What we come to realize about all of these moments is that they aren’t strung out. They are all placed within twenty, maybe even ten minutes of one another. And given what we know about Alex and Eric showing up at the school in their ominous costumes and with their loaded bags, we can connect the dots ourselves. These are the last twenty (or ten) minutes of these people’s lives which aren’t going to be, at the very least, utterly terrifying. This is the essence of horror to know that something terrible is going to happen and to watch as people live on understanding nothing of what’s to come, living their lives as normally as possible while something which (for a while, anyway) was impossible.
The film actively compares itself to a computer game (what looks to be an early online shooter) that Eric plays while he sits around as Alex practices Beethoven. Holding a gun which is centered at the lower part of the screen, the player goes up to people from behind and shoots them. The little animated people all look the same; none of them react in any way, but simply die on the spot, their legs up in the air. It turns out that you can change the weapon; Eric grows bored of one gun and selects an RPG. It’s a game which kills time like solitaire but does not even require as much strategy. The same viewpoint appears in real life twice for about a second each time. The two boys dress up paramilitary and have aim enough to shoot down their peers, but they don’t have training outside the general point-and-shoot of those mediocre early 2000s online games. It’s tempting to call the game a primary motivating factor or an influence on Alex and Eric, but I’m not sure that holds up. Van Sant gives us several different reasons that Alex and Eric might be given to take out whatever frustrations they have with bullets. Alex is bullied by a jock in one scene, but in the moment doesn’t seem terrifically upset about it. Eric appears to have no home life to speak of, and Alex’s mom seems distant, yet there’s a scene where they’re at the breakfast table together and Alex’s mom makes them pancakes. There’s the video game, which is even more minimalist than Elephant. There’s the documentary about Hitler which they watch together, which seems like it should be a factor, but you can hear Eric asking Alex “That’s Hitler, right?” when the man himself shows up on the screen. Neither boy has ever been kissed, and they kiss each other in the shower before they go off to school to gun down the other people there. (What makes someone or something queer is a running subtext of the film. Acadia, played by Alicia Miles, is our entry into a gay-straight alliance meeting where the kids are discussing how you can tell someone’s gay. The way John smacks his butt for Elias’ camera is unexpected, and if we were to guess if someone’s gay based on how they look, Elias wouldn’t be a bad guess. Nicole, Jordan, and Brittany have a fight at lunch about balancing time between a boyfriend and best friends. Alex and Eric are the only ones who do anything which is specifically queer, but there are several other characters and faces who are on that spectrum. Van Sant refuses to make them invisible.) In the same way that Van Sant denies us closure at the end of the film via suicide or a firefight with cops or even with Alex like, sitting on top of a pile of bodies in the cafeteria, he denies a clear reason for the shooting, something concrete to fight against or extirpate in future generations of teens. There are many factors, each one part of a larger web, none of them the last block in the Jenga tower. Even the violence of the film – the burned out lockers still aflame, the sound of gunfire, the blood of the murdered – is depersonalized. One feels for the people who are shot down and killed, and several of the people with names are on the wrong end of Alex’s gun. But there’s nothing like Call of Duty about it, nothing like Psycho, nothing like Saving Private Ryan. It’s possible to watch the school shooting without one’s heartbeat rising, without one’s pupils dilating. No music is placed beneath it to prompt our adrenaline. It is coded with the same sort of normality that coded the first seventy minutes of the film, and as unexpected as it is for the students and staff, it seems to be as much in the fabric of this school as the girls purging in the bathroom, the girl putting library books back on the shelves, or the boy hanging up his photos on a line.