Elephant (2003): The Banal Imprisonment of Everyday Life

Mass murder in the United States, a depressingly common event, always provokes the same debate. Liberals talk about the need for more gun-control. Conservatives talk about the need for more guns.

Elephant, Gus Van Sant’s loosely fictionalized movie about the Columbine Massacre, does what all good art does. It raises more questions than it answers. It forces us to look at a familiar event from a new perspective. It not only broadens the context of the debate. It exists on its own terms, and, as such, reflects back upon the human condition.

The setting, a suburban high-school in Portland, Oregon, is deceptively low key. There are one or two instances of bullying, and a largely indifferent teaching staff, but it has nothing like the rigid social hierarchies and institutionalized torture of the fascist Texas hellhole Richard Linklater portrayed in Dazed and Confused. What Van Sant points to as the cause of mass murders like Columbine or Sandy Hook is the terrible void at the heart of suburban America, the banal imprisonment of everyday life.

The more realistic the aesthetic, therefore, the more successful a film with such a message will be. There are no 25-year-old professional actors pretending to be teenagers in Elephant. John, the platinum blond surfer boy, the kind-hearted symbol of youthful innocence, is a lot better-looking than I was at his age, but he’s still a real teenager. Alex and Eric, the film’s Dylan and Klebold, are unnervingly ordinary young men, neither obvious social misfits, nor, until the very end, homicidal monsters. If this two kids can murder their classmates in cold blood, we think, anybody can.

So why do they?

Most of Elephant consists of extended tracking shots of people walking through the sterile hallways of a typical, middle-class American high-school. We meet John, his alcoholic father, Eli, the photography student, Michelle, the thick-set, homely girl who’s too ashamed of her body to wear shorts to gym class, Brittany, Jordan, and Nicole, all bulimic, Acadia, a beautiful, compassionate girl who belongs to the school’s gay straight alliance, Nathan and Carrie, a popular athlete and his girlfriend, and Benny, the school’s only African American. What a perceptive viewer of Elephant eventually notices, in addition to the extraordinarily effective narrative time loops Van Sant uses with far more skill than Quentin Tarantino did in Pulp Fiction, is the difference between the outside world, more specifically, nature, and the inside world, the sterile, suburban architecture in which we imprison our children.

Outside, the sun is always shining on the lush vegetation of the Pacific Northwest. People move freely, and easily. Inside, we long to be on the outside. Elephant is, in fact, so skillfully filmed that I almost felt like a plant, leaning towards the windows, and the warm, nourishing light. Most negative reviews of Elephant have called it “boring,” but that’s entirely the point. Van Sant creates the dull, soul-crushing world, not only of the public school, but of the typical office. As the film loops back upon itself, jumping around in time as the camera jumps from character to character, we begin to feel as if we’re in prison. We lose any sense of time, of continuity, of narrative progression. Oh let this film end, we think, longing for the massacre we know is coming in the last 15 minutes. In other words, Van Sant has put us inside the minds of Alex and Eric, and the diseased souls of Dylan and Klebold, Adam Lanza, and James Holmes.

The climax of Elephant is so subtle you will miss it if you blink. Even if you have your eyes pinned open like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, you might not even notice. Alex is playing the piano at home, a clumsy, yet surprisingly effective performance of Beethoven’s Fur Elise. Nevertheless, as the music goes on, we get bored, not because Fur Elise can ever be dull, but because Alex himself is getting sick of it. We look up at the window. The sun, as always, is shining. Then we see a hooded figure, just a kid in a hoodie, but as unnerving as if it had been the Angel of Death. It’s Eric. Alex slams down the cover of the piano, gives Beethoven his middle-finger, and the two young men sit down to plan the massacre. They order an automatic weapon on the Internet. They talk about the layout of the school. The way they speak is as banal and matter of fact as it would have been if they had been working on the school yearbook, or filling out college applications.

The massacre, when it comes, is short, sharp, cold, sterile, horrifying. “Get the fuck out of here. Heavy shit is going down,” Alex says to John as they enter the building, each dressed in military gear, and carrying an arsenal of death. John has been friendly and open to both kids, but neither Alex nor Eric is specifically targeting bullies. The first kid they murder is the innocent Michelle, splattering her brains all over a stack of books in the school library. Then they go into the bathroom and kill a terrified Brittany, Jordan, and Nicole. Benny, a jock, but sympathetic nevertheless, helps Acadia, who had been frozen in place by a panic attack, out of a window. He’s killed trying to save the life of Mr. Luce, the Vice Principal, and the closest thing Elephant has to a villain. Eric toys with Mr. Luce before he shoots him dead. Eric goes into the cafeteria, where he finds Alex casually sipping a cup of soda.

“How did you do?” Alex asks Eric, who answers in such an bland, unemotional way he seems to be talking about video games. “Pretty good,” he says. “I got a few kids. I got the principal.” Alex smiles. Then he murders Eric, “his partner in crime,” and stalks stalks the now deserted hallways. He’s disappointed. All the other kids have run outside. There’s no-one left to shoot. Eventually he finds Nathan and Carrie, cowering together in the meat locker of the school’s kitchen. It’s the prize Alex has been hoping for, the popular jock and his girlfriend completely under his power. “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,” he says, savoring their terror. “Catch a tiger by the toe.” The credits roll. Alex will enjoy their deaths, but Van Sant denies that “pleasure” to Elephant’s viewers, sparing us, in effect, from the abyss that has swallowed Alex whole.

In the end, however, none of us will be spared the abyss. Not only is it possible, or even likely, that what we just saw in Elephant will happen tomorrow, or, at the very latest, next week. It can’t be ended, either by more gun-control, or by arming the teachers, and the students. It’s part of the American, and even human, condition.

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2 comments

  1. Your assertion that Elephant was “so skillfully filmed that I almost felt like a plant, leaning towards the windows, and the warm, nourishing light” resonates: the school scenes had me constantly watching the brighter portions of the screen (where of course nothing was happening), a viewing habit that got exploited usefully during the conclusion’s massacre. I often see the use of non-actors regarded as a “surrealist” method (because French directors from the 60s and 70s were the only people to ever do this, of course), but in Elephant it seems a very realist measure, and helps illuminate the horrifying banality of the massacre plans that your referred to.

    I’ll have to see it again, as it’s probably been about ten years and, as with most movies, the tone and style have left much more of a lasting impact on me than the plot structure proper; for my part, I never found much interest in any of the characters beyond how they established an almost-documentary feel to matter, reinforcing the sense of watching day-to-day life pass before the impending disaster and finally nailed down with the unscored, slow-paced massacre that makes you wonder why every movie with a suspenseful fight scene now throws in all kinds of distracting noise and music. I cannot imagine Elephant with “real” actors, or, that is to say, I cannot imagine Elephant with “real” actors without also having subplots shoehorned-in about the student dying of cancer, the student dying of heartbreak, and the white professor helping the deaf black kid overcome his physical and racial handicaps to be on the cross-country running team (the subplot about the father’s alcoholism was a little after-school-special as it was). Alas, our “real” actors are only trained in trope, so any film that achieves too fine a level of realism threatens to discard it the moment a “real” actor opens their mouth for an important line of dialogue.

    1. As far as professional actors go, you should check out the movie “Stoker.” Mia Wasikowska is really good at playing a violent, disturbed youth. I could totally see her portraying Elliot Rodger in male drag.

      In elephant though the key was the two kids’ blankness. Van Sant found two very good, blank “non-actors” he managed to get not to act. Even all the kids’ good looks contribute to the blankness. In some ways good looks are blank and ordinary looks are more expressive.

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