Aside from the subject matter (and the dread of inevitability which covers the film like a shadow), Elephant is unsettling because it is simultaneously naturalistic and dreamlike. Individual scenes are staged and acted realistically, without the melodramatic flourishes or cues to the audience found in most films, but the film as a whole is nonlinear and only narrative in the most general sense — its final scene occurs later in the timeline than its opening scene, but most of what we see in between is presented out of order. Several scenes are also seen multiple times, but joined at different points or presented from the perspective of a different character. Often a scene plays out for several minutes before something familiar happens to let us know we are someplace we’ve already been. Flashbacks are handled in a similarly jarring fashion — Van Sant simply launches in, with no titles or narration, and no embedded prompts to cue us that what we are seeing takes place earlier in the timeline.
Describing it makes it sound tedious, repetitive and confusing, but the technique has the opposite effect. Most of the film is spent simply following various students around — literally — Van Sant’s favorite shot is simply to push behind his characters as they walk up sidewalks, through hallways or across athletic fields — but there are glimpses of the coming massacre before it actually arrives, and reexamining seemingly insignificant events we’ve already seen from various perspectives forces us to pay attention even though very little seems to be happening.
We follow a diverse sampling of students. First there is John, whose father is too drunk to drive him to school this morning. John drives most of the way himself, takes his dad’s keys and telephones his older brother to come pick the old man up. We meet Elias, a photographer who stops to take a picture of a couple in the park on his way in to school and promises to make them a print. We meet Nathan, a popular jock, and his girlfriend Carrie. We meet Brittany, Jordon and Nicole, three chatty girls who argue with one another, display an attraction to Nathan as he passes by, and force themselves to vomit in the bathroom after picking at salads for lunch. We meet Michelle, a quiet, awkward girl who is reprimanded by her gym teacher for refusing to wear shorts, then goes to work as an aide in the school library. There are others as well. Some will still be alive at the end of the film, some will not.
The murderers are Alex and Eric. They constitute a clique unto themselves. We see them picked-on and harassed at school by the jocks and the popular girls; and we see them at home, where Alex plays Beethoven on the piano, Eric plays violent first-person-shooter video games, and they study a floor-plan of the school to map out their killing spree. They order automatic rifles from a website and have them delivered to the front door via Federal Express, and they construct their own pipe-bombs. They kiss and shower together the morning of the massacre. In the car, as they are about to march into the school with their weapons and ammunition, Alex runs over the plan one last time and reminds Eric, “Most importantly, man, just have fun,” as though they are on their way to a paintball fight.
Van Sant presents the massacre frankly, without flinching. Alex and Eric, clad in black from head to toe and armed to the teeth, prowl the halls of the school executing students and faculty indiscriminately. Characters we have spent most of the movie eavesdropping on and getting to know are unsentimentally and unceremoniously dispatched. Eric holds his principal at gunpoint and berates him for being treated unfairly, then pretends to let the terrified man go free before shooting him in the back. Alex makes his way into the library, where he is photographed by an oddly calm Elias.
The amount of blood we see spilled by the shooters in Elephant is somewhere between the bloodless westerns of the 1930s and 40s, and the absurdly gratuitous gore of many modern horror films. We see lots of people getting shot, and there’s blood, but not too much — too much would have violated the realism, made the violence sexy instead of sobering. Elephant doesn’t want to thrill us, or scare us, or even make us feel bad — it just wants us to watch.
This is the best film Gus Van Sant has ever made. To make that declaration is to say something — before this the guy did some seriously great work, like My Own Private Idaho and Good Will Hunting, and a few years later he made Last Days, another haunting fictional account of a notable death (that of Kurt Cobain). Viewed through Van Sant’s lens, a school shooting like the one in Elephant, or at Columbine or Virginia Tech, isn’t a tool for a political issue or a reason to lower a flag and hold a memorial service — it’s a tragic, meaningless event where real people really die. Elephant shows its shooting to be so senseless and so deeply sad that watching it makes you hope more than ever that you never experience the real thing.