Elephant (2003)

(In theaters, February 2004) This is a very frustrating film. As a naturalistic, quasi-documentary representation of a high-school shooting, it’s simultaneously pointless and brilliant. Gus Van Sant is an experienced director and Elephant is never better than when it develops its chronology of events through alternate overlapping viewpoints; the camera literally follows one character, then another, then another and it eventually interlocks to forms an almost-coherent picture of what just happened in the span of a few minutes. There are delicious moments of “don’t go there!” suspense as we develop an understanding what is happening at the same moment. (Pay attention, though, and you’ll discover at least one vexing moment of mismatching chronology. Hint; follow the “we’ll be back by one-thirty” line.) Alas, the genius of the premise is not equalled by the execution: the real-time camera moves can be exasperating (“A powerful film about getting from Point A to Point B!”), there are some technical goofs (street is dry; street is wet) and not all flashbacks work equally well. Worse, perhaps, is the film’s lack of an impact: While Van Saint should be commended from turning his film in a message about something, Elephant falls into the opposite trap –to present but not enlighten. Some live, most die arbitrarily, but there is no dramatic arc, no attempt at a resolution. Even the film’s final frames leave a lot unsolved and unexplained. Good point for realism, but this is a mere embryo of what could have been done with the concept.

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