Movie Jems: Elephant

Movie Maven Jem Mackay gives us our second serving of classic films

elephant Films movie jems review

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School shootings have become an alarmingly regular occurrence in modern America, and cinema has always tended to shy away from such a controversial topic.

But one movie that does deal with the issue, and deals with it very well, is ‘Elephant’. Written and directed by Gus Van Sant, it was the winner of the Palme’d’Or at Cannes Film Festival in 2003.

Rather than adopting a simple chronological structure, Elephant is constructed in Tarantino-eque fashion to show the same events and interactions from the different perspectives of its teenage cast.

It’s from this concept that the movie derives its name, in reference to a 1989 documentary of the same name in which several blind men were asked to draw what they imagined an Elephant to look like. Just as those men’s sketches differed, so do the several presentations of the massacre.

This allows you to get the sense of a living and functioning school, rather than just seeing blocked emotionless set-pieces, making the inevitable slaughter all the more hard-hitting. It also gives each of the chosen characters room to develop, so we gradually get to know, relate to, and understand the separate individuals.

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The camerawork compliments this ‘fly on the wall’ style, employing tracking shots to give the impression that you’re just following these teenagers around, on what would appear to be a normal day at High School. The fact Van Sant only hired new or non-actors helps to further nurture this realistic documentary feel – at no point will you be clicking your fingers in frustration trying to remember the name of what’s-his-face off that Friends episode.

There is no soundtrack. Van Sant instead ingeniously manipulates the sounds of the hallways and cafeteria to create a vibrant atmosphere. The only songs used are two of Beethoven’s most famous works – ‘Für Elise’ and ‘Moonlight Sonata’ – to really ramp up the sense of foreboding tragedy.

Some have disparaged ‘Elephant’ as a plain, cheaply-made movie, but it is this simplicity that makes it so impactful. There are no indulgent slow-motion shots of flying bullets, no egregious splattering of fake blood. The dialogue isn’t important. No grand moralistic explanation of events is shoved down your throat. There is no message.

Instead, Van Sant purely and brilliantly presents an all too common modern tragedy. The rest is up to you.