In Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, there are no easy answers. The film is not about finding answers or reasoning an incomprehensible tragedy; that would be hubristic. No one has answers, and Van Sant doesn’t claim any different. Rather, his film is about observing. It’s about confronting life and all that it contains square in the face, not sweeping it under the rug. There can never be a satisfactory explanation for an event as horrible as a school shooting, but while we shouldn’t look for an explanation, we should strive for more attention, understanding and empathy, everywhere in life.
Van Sant brings his audience closer to understanding and empathy through observation. He and his fine cinematographer Harris Savides foreground the audience’s duty to watch, patiently and meticulous documenting the route of his characters in bravura long-takes. The first character we follow (some students are introduced via title cards) is John, a sensitive and thoughtful boy. We watch his drunk father pick him up for school. We see John make a phone call, encounter the principal, walk down a hallway, and more; events both meaningful and mundane.
For Van Sant, no detail is insignificant. A football pass is just as important as pistol blast, and both are observed with the same detachment. We are meant to see all, to open our eyes to things too easy to disregard in real life, and this same moral dedication to unflinching observation keeps the film from ever feeling exploitative or sensationalistic. From the beginning, the film focuses clearly on people and their minutest actions. Things all seem very normal, but Van Sant wisely tips his cards early, briefly showing the killers enter school and hinting that this day will be anything but normal.
As the day proceeds, events are repeated, shown from different perspectives. Van Sant deftly weaves together the lives of his characters, but their crossings never feel gimmicky or coincidental because they are no more important than any other detail of the day. The shifting perspectives and crosscutting between moments in time serves the dual purpose of building suspense and showing off a fully-realized world, teeming with life. The use of non-professional actors, improvised dialogue and shooting on location at a school in Portland lend further credibility to the reality of the film. It’s all too recognizable from real life, and this realism forces us to confront the horror ready to explode.
The largest sequence away from school unfolds at Alex’s home. He and his friend Eric, the two killers, spend the afternoon lazing around and almost dispassionately initiating their plan. Despite a more confined setting, Van Sant shoots these scenes like the rest of the film, capturing Alex’s environment in long takes. One shot slowly spins around Alex’s bedroom as he plays Beethoven on the piano. It seems like a normal high schooler’s room: the bed is unmade, some dirty clothes are strewn about the room. On one wall hangs a drawing of an elephant.
The scene again demonstrates Van Sant’s compassion and commitment to observing everything and forcing the viewer to decide what’s important. Critics of the film have pointed to this sequence as hinting at possible motives for the killing. Many of the popular explanations advanced in the wake of the Columbine shooting are present: the boys play violent videogames, surf the Web for guns, and idly watch a documentary about Nazism. Alex’s parents seem distant; their faces are never shown. Since there’s no editorializing, many have questioned the inclusion of such details. The key, however, is that Van Sant is not presenting these as true causes to the killings, but as red herrings. He’s simply playing lip service to our futile attempts at rationalizing teenage violence. As he has shown all along, through both the form and content of the film, these clues are simply details, just a few of the myriad events that make up this particular day.
Soon, the inevitable event begins. The violence is indeed graphic—Van Sant refuses to shy away from anything—but it is documented with the same grace and calm as the rest of the film. Some central characters live, others die, but like in real life, these outcomes are determined by chance, not by the machinations of a scriptwriter. The fates of the characters do not neatly fit into a standard narrative. In Elephant there are no answers. Sometime during the mayhem of the film’s climax, Eric is asked why he’s doing what he’s doing. We are whisked away to another part of school before returning to Eric: “…you know there’s others out there like us, too.” We don’t hear his explanation, only his threat of more violence. In a film built so meticulously around observation, this explanation is perhaps the only thing Van Sant consciously, conveniently overlooks.