As America continues to grapple with years of school shootings — and survivors of such shootings decades ago cope with a reality in which such tragedies have become far more commonplace — it’s not surprising that movies have started cropping up in reaction to this sad trend. In the last year alone, we’ve had Mass, a sensitive, intimate drama about two sets of parents meeting to discuss the aftermath of one such shooting — one couple’s kid was the shooter, killing several students, including the other couple’s kid — and today, HBO Max releases The Fallout, a well-observed study of two teen survivors (Jenna Ortega and Maddie Ziegler) who have nothing in common except they huddled together in the bathroom when the fatal shooting occurred, convinced they’d be gunned down next.
Earlier movies tackled the horror in other ways — 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, whose titular teen (Ezra Miller) uses a bow and arrow, is seen from the perspective of his grieving, shunned mother (Tilda Swinton) — but what they all share is the audience’s anxiety about imagining what a school shooting would look like, what it would feel like. We cannot process such a horror, and these movies get their impact by putting those monstrously unfathomable ideas into our minds without necessarily depicting them.
Maybe that’s why the film that still resonates the most for me is Elephant, an imperfect but daring and genuinely unsettling approximation of the unimaginable. This award-winning 2003 drama received as many kudos as it did accusations of being exploitative or pretentious nonsense. Gus Van Sant’s homage to the 1999 Columbine massacre chronicles a school shooting, while understanding that showing something isn’t the same as explaining it. The movie feels like a dream, which means that sometimes it plays like a nightmare, and as time goes on, its incompleteness seems more and more like a virtue. Van Sant tried to apply art to what is essentially artless — the messy, cruel random violence of two teenagers killing their classmates — and Elephant’s inability to come to terms with what it’s set into motion is both poignant and disturbing. Nonetheless, the movie created a way of making the unimaginable concrete.
Van Sant, who turns 70 this summer, has had one of the most curious careers of any modern director. Starting out as one of the champions of American independent cinema, crafting classics such as Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, he moved into more commercial terrain with Good Will Hunting, whose success he used to bankroll his fascinatingly unnecessary shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. He seems to pursue whatever catches his fancy at that moment, and in the early 2000s, he reunited with Good Will Hunting star Matt Damon to do the ultra-low-budget meditation Gerry, in which Damon and Casey Affleck wander through the desert, lost. Gerry had been inspired by true events, and so was its follow-up. But Elephant took a while to take shape.
“I remember when [Columbine] first occurred thinking that dramatists should get in there and do something right away, as opposed to waiting 10 years,” Van Sant said in a Filmmaker interview when Elephant opened. “That’s against convention — whenever something intense happens, the dramatic pieces usually wait until there is more perspective. I was pitching it around, trying to go immediately. I wanted it to be a TV movie because that’s where all the mainstream media is.”
This was shortly after Columbine, but Van Sant discovered that network executives didn’t want to deal with that hot potato — after all, they had enough headaches in the late 1990s. “I very quickly learned that [the broadcasters] had problems of their own,” said Van Sant. “They were flying to Washington to have censorship meetings and stuff with [the Clinton administration]. They didn’t know if they were still going to be able to film their cop shows, much less make something that refers to [Columbine] itself. It was such a big incident that these guys were saying, ‘No way, we’ll never do that.’”
Eventually backed by HBO Films, Van Sant worked with a cast largely consisting of nonprofessionals and newcomers. Elephant doesn’t have a conventional main character, the closest thing being John (John Robinson), a high school student whose father (Timothy Bottoms) is an alcoholic. But we don’t learn much about John or any of his classmates beyond very cursory characterizations. (Elias McConnell, for instance, plays Elias, who carries a still camera because he wants to be a photographer.) These teens are meant to be a little undefined — they’re avatars of familiar adolescent tropes, not yet fully formed individuals. They’re just kids.
Elephant glides through the school hallways, the camerawork recalling the eerie calm that Stanley Kubrick brought to all those tracking shots inside the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, a different kind of horror movie about imminent peril. Even if you didn’t know what Elephant was about, that floating camera — often behind the characters, coldly following them — gives off the sense of a vaguely hostile presence hovering just out of sight of these teens. Soon, though, something far more real and malevolent will enter into the picture: Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen), walking up to the school with backpacks, carrying heavy duffle bags. John sees them, asks what’s going on. “Get the fuck out and don’t come back,” Alex advises his classmate. “Some heavy shit’s going down.”
Horror directors like to torture their audience, teasing the kill that’s on its way by throwing in fakeouts meant to make the viewer think that the grisly thing isn’t about to happen. But we know it’s coming — it’s just a matter of when. Similarly, the intentional banality of Elephant’s design — the nondescript school, the bland characters — is intended to normalize the scenario, making it seem like it could happen anywhere, but it also leaves you anxious. There’s something uncomfortably airless about the setting, as if it’s an unspoiled Eden just waiting to be destroyed. And so we wait, and wait, for the inevitable thing to occur — we prepare for the unimaginable to take place right in front of our eyes.
Filmed in a boxy aspect ratio that cuts off the edges of the frame, making it look more like the educational films you watch in school, Elephant is claustrophobic, the characters seeming to be literally trapped inside that small, confining frame. Van Sant shows us little of Alex and Eric’s backstory — they play video games, they watch a documentary about Hitler, they share a smooch since they’ve never been kissed — and those brief glimpses, depending on your perspective, are either meant to provide clues into why they become killers or, conversely, argue that it’s foolish to assign pedestrian motives to such a terrible act.
But the film’s critics found those bits of character background insultingly simplistic: By laying the blame on outside factors — including the young men’s closeted homosexuality — was Van Sant suggesting these were reasons why someone would shoot up their school? Van Sant rejected that reading. In the Filmmaker interview, he recalled, “I showed the film to one particular friend who was like an adviser to the film and said, ‘What do you think about the kiss?’ And he said, ‘Why would you take it out? Because people might think they’re gay Nazis?’ And we laughed. Nah, nobody could think that because that would be stupid! And of course [some people] do think that!”
The shooting is handled with chilly precision, Van Sant draining the sequences of excitement or slick technique. If anything, there’s a dispassionate precision, both in how he films the killings and within the killers themselves. If this is meant to be joyous on Alex and Eric’s part — a way to get back at the classmates who bullied them — there’s no thrill in the execution. Van Sant gives the scenes an almost documentary-like realism, a technique that cuts both ways. Sure, he strips away the phony drama, seeking to present a bleakly believable scenario, but his techniques have a showiness to them nonetheless. That floating camera, that artfully manufactured blandness, that anesthetized normalcy — Elephant could sometimes feel like an art project, an assignment to dramatize a school shooting from a studied distance. Depending on how the unadorned cruelty of Alex and Eric’s killings landed with you, Elephant was either stunning or a little too orchestrated in its artful starkness. Maybe both.
Elephant won the prestigious Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes — beating out, among others, Dogville and Mystic River — although reviewers were divided, some hailing its ambition, others actively pissed off at Van Sant’s approach. Writing in L.A. Weekly, Scott Foundas called Elephant “the most reprehensible, blood-boiling movie I saw in Cannes” and “a repugnant act of pedantry, purporting to hold the audience’s nose up to the ugly spectacle of adolescent alienation and the root causes of school violence, only to end up reinforcing every bogus stereotype propagated in Columbine’s histrionic media aftermath.” And, indeed, Dave Cullen’s acclaimed 2009 nonfiction book Columbine upended a lot of those assumptions about the real shooters that Elephant alludes to.
But while acknowledging its shortcomings, I still find Elephant unshakably upsetting. The blankness of the whole affair makes its violent acts seem inevitable, a thing that just happens in the world. And those things have kept happening ever since. None of Elephant’s victims are well-developed, but they’re not supposed to be — they could be anybody. If anything, it makes their fate that much sadder. They don’t deserve to die — nobody does in such a manner as what Elephant simulates.
“It’s not that I don’t want you involved in the characters,” Van Sant once said, “but I want you involved by watching them, an observation, the way documentarian Frederick Wiseman sits back and lets things occur. We could have invented a more traditional psychological narrative. I have my ideas why Columbine happened, but that’s not this film. I wanted a poetic impression rather than dictating an answer. I wanted to include the audience’s thoughts.”
You can object to him wanting to lend a “poetic impression” to an actual tragedy, but Elephant’s minimalist style deftly evokes something unspeakable about school shootings. Fine films like Mass and The Fallout laudibly address the immense pain that these crimes create — for the families, for the survivors, for those grieving a loved one — but they’re responding to the aftermath, the horrible psychic and physical scars that result. By diving directly into the shooting itself, Van Sant traps us in a terrifying present-tense, one in which that violence rages unabated — one in which neither we nor the characters can escape. And that’s why Elephant remains so haunting: All these years later, we’re still held hostage by this movie’s portrait of senseless shootings and innocence lost. The killing never stops.