2003; written and directed by Gus Van Sant; 81 mins
“Firecrackers!” That seems to be the recurring motif in these scenarios. Many a time, one reads of witnesses describing the sound of firecrackers nearby in the initial shots of a horrific domestic massacre. Presumably it’s the brain’s way of telling you everything is normal. That such an event could not be happening. Were it made today, would the film’s protagonists see it as so extraordinary?
Taking title and style from Alan Clarke and his 1989 TV play about sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, Gus Van Sant shows us a regular day at a regular high school in Portland, Oregon which turns into a waking nightmare. Two students enter school, armed to the teeth and proceed to systematically slaughter anyone and everyone.
While Bowling for Columbine touched on the infamous 1999 high school massacre in a big way, it really was a part of a larger thesis on US gun culture. In Elephant, Van Sant tackles it head on with almost no frills and a fierce, forensic focus on normality. Any directorial flourishes (which are done with utmost sensitivity) are there to emphasise the unremarkable nature of key moments and how they unwittingly become snapshots of that last, fleeting time of innocence before these lives are irreparably torn apart. In one early, brief shift into slow-motion, we watch one student, John, petting a dog before we return to 24fps* and he passes the killers. Tooled up and walking straight towards the school building, they’re almost out of frame before warning him; “Some heavy shit’s going down!”.
This moment will be returned to in the film’s non-linear structure but from different angles, so we know how near each story strand is to the horrors about to befall the characters. The characters of Brittany, Jordan and Nicole – who in most other movies would be the queen-bitches but here are just normal, bitchy teenage girls, talking about normal, incidental things – spy John petting the dog again through the cafeteria window. This serves to give you an awful, churning feeling of dread in your gut as you realise they have mere minutes left to live.
In the Clarke film, the killings were completely de-contextualised and shown as men killing other men. Van Sant takes those elements and ever-so-slightly expands them but we still know nothing more than the 24-hour window we’re given. Even when the killers are shown playing video games or watching a documentary about Hitler, the film is presenting but never overtly blaming these things. As DP Harris Savides‘ Steadicam follows each character around corridors, rooms and yards, we see that some have bullying issues, others are in relationships, girls bicker, boys fuck around and teachers teach. No one’s problems are world-changing, though. Were the victims potential Nobel Prize winners? That’s not important. What the film does is strips away any false drama and is too smart to pretend it’s a pinpoint accurate depiction of such awful events. What it does is give you a terrifyingly vivid idea of their frightening and tragic inevitability.
*Frames per second. Normal speed.