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Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” Examines the Tiny, or Tragic, Terrors Of High School

Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" Examines the Tiny, or Tragic, Terrors Of High School

Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” Examines the Tiny, or Tragic, Terrors Of High School

by Peter Brunette

Alicia Miles and John Robinson in Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant.” Courtesy of HBO

The first 45 minutes of Gus Van Sant’s new film, “Elephant,” is self-assured, formally adroit, and profoundly illuminating. Exploring the Littleton, Colo., school massacre of 1999, the film displays such a clear and sympathetic understanding of the banality and tiny terrors of ordinary high school life that the viewer is left wondering not why this tragedy ever happened, but why it hasn’t happened more often. Van Sant is perhaps the gutsiest filmmaker working in American independent cinema today and consequently his filmography is jammed almost equally with disasters (“Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” “Psycho”) and triumphs (“Drugstore Cowboy,” “My Own Private Idaho,” “To Die For”). The split between the good and the bad even continues among his more self-consciously commercial films (“Good Will Hunting” vs. “Finding Forrester”). This curious division is replicated within his latest film, whose literal-minded and unimaginative second half diminishes the sublimities of the first.

To cast the film, Van Sant interviewed a bunch of kids from various high schools in his hometown of Portland, Ore. It’s unclear exactly what he was looking for, but the result of his talent search is a group of students that seem completely natural and genuine, yet who lack the awkwardness of most non-professional actors thrust suddenly before the camera. (Significantly, their first names in the film, for the most part, are the same as their names in real life). One of the girls is so geeky-looking that she couldn’t possibly be anything but real, and she recalls the slovenly peasant girl from Rossellini’s “Paisan” (1946). These kids are accompanied by smooth professionals — like Timothy Bottoms — who only enhance the feeling of authenticity. The opening scene, for example, gives us a drunken father (Bottoms) driving his son to school, and we’re immediately and forcefully pulled into the film as he smashes into one car after another along the way.

Van Sant is also at the top of his filmmaking game in presenting these mostly forlorn lives, employing a kind of stylized realism that depends for a lot of its effectiveness on a relentlessly tracking camera that follows these kids everywhere, even into the bathroom. (Van Sant also sometimes reverse-rhymes the tracking shots by putting his camera, for example, at the other end of a huge gymnasium.) What’s absolutely welcome here is that Van Sant has foregone the use of the hand-held camera, which a lesser director would have relied upon, in favor of the otherworldly smoothness of what seems to be a Steadicam.

Events are de-dramatized, and there’s a casualness to everything that seems almost magical. Football practice is underlined, unusually and remarkably, by a classical music score. There are also tiny moments of slow motion that seem intended to increase the intensity of certain otherwise insignificant gestures. Most provocatively, the director employs a “Rashomon”-like chronological method in which a few structuring events are seen three different times, say, from the perspective of three different characters. In this, of course, he’s following the practice of many recent films that seem obsessed by questions of time and their implications for cinematic form, but the film never feels derivative in the slightest way. And though all of this paraphernalia may sound like it weighs the film down, it does anything but.

Weirdly, the exact moment when the film begins to lose much of its aesthetic interest can be pinpointed. It comes when the three superficial girls he’s been following, Brittany, Jordan, and Nicole, enter the ladies’ room to purge, simultaneously, after lunch. The delicate balance between naturalism and stylization is lost, and with the latter momentarily taking over, our aesthetic investment in the film suddenly becomes threatened.

The film further deteriorates, ironically, when the action begins to pick up. As Van Sant becomes more aligned dramatically and narratively with the killers, our own interest becomes riveted in the unfolding events. But what we see, with few exceptions, seems to follow the by-now familiar pathway: Nazi websites, gun ordering on the Internet, violent video games, frustrated artistic creativity (one of the killers is fond of playing Beethoven) and so on. Maybe the problem is that Van Sant’s desire to employ some narrative shorthand has a lot of these emblematic moments occurring within the same scene, and thus they seem forced and obvious. Happily, this final section is redeemed by some signature Van Sant moments (wish-fulfillments?) such as the killers kissing in the shower before they embark on their deadly task. Unfortunately, before tackling the greatest mystery of all — just how could someone do this? — Van Sant falters slightly and what could have been a masterpiece becomes just another pretty good movie.

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