Movie Reviews
4:25 pm
Sun March 21, 2004

Elephant

Throughout this Cannes-winning, almost docudrama, Van Sant turns our expectations upside down.

What's in the name of a place? Tombstone, Columbine? The former conjures up thoughts of heroic justice, the latter mass murder. Understanding the motives of Wyatt Earp or Dillon Klebold is not as easy as the place names; interpreting a film about either event as antiviolence is not easy either.

So director Gus Van Sant ("My Private Idaho," "Good Will Hunting," "Gerry") fictionalizes an average high school at which a Columbine-like massacre takes place. Interestingly, he makes no attempt to relay the underlying causes for the young men's decision to slaughter; in fact, he seems to try hard not to supply any reasons except for a brief segment with a boy watching a show on Nazis and a faceless mother serving pancakes. Even the lad whose father is an alcoholic is not one of the murderers.

As my radio co-host, Clay Lowe, reminds me from our conversation with the director, in Van Sant's Zen Buddhist way, he seems to be saying the reasons for the crime are unknowable like human existence itself. For those critics who fault Van Sant for not committing himself to a thesis, the unknowable should have sufficed. That is not to say the director's slow pace, long takes, and interminable tracking shots aren't boring; it's just that the viewer must give in to the director's vision of teenage life as essentially devoid of humor, excitement, and rationale. For us Western rational types, this mirthless world may serve as a possible cause for the slaughter. As one of the murderers tells the other at the beginning of the rampage, "Have fun."

Throughout this Cannes-winning, almost docudrama, Van Sant turns our expectations upside down: The misfit girl is not saved just because she is like the assassins; the muscular, seemingly impervious African-American student, tracked like a savior through the halls, is not a hero at all, but another disengaged high-schooler not reading the signals.

The aphorism about the ignored elephant in the living room, where it no longer can be seen because it's been there too long, or the one about the blind men who, each with a part of the elephant, can't describe the whole, can be the appropriate theme of this cinema-verite dissection of the senselessness of evil. As Joseph Conrad said about the violation of the jungle, "It was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole bunch of them." In other words, crime and it criminals are inscrutable.