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3.4 out of 5 stars
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Director Gus Van Sant's film is hypnotizing and disturbing. Filmed in a documentary style, the camera follows several students through one fateful day - one student at a time. The premise is reminiscent of any American High School. There are the jocks, the cheerleaders, the bookworms, the slackers, and the everyday kids. Van Sant has a clever technique where he is able to follow (stalk) each student as they walk down the hallways and pass from one to another as they go through their daytime routine. We also see the killers in preparation for the possible murders to follow. Everything is paced in a real time mode with no hurrying or jumpy editing. The viewer becomes an observer and a participant, watching normal activities slowly unfold to an almost ordinary conclusion - except that it is not. The false tranquility that the film possesses masks the unhappy insidiousness of these ordinary students lives. These kids could be your fellow classmates and that is one of the most powerful points of this film.
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on May 19, 2006
This is a great movie. It's not about what happens at the end, it's about the lives of high school students, and the things they go throgh everyday. If you buy this expecting an action movie, that's not what you are going to get. It's a very chilling look into an "ordinary" school.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon December 27, 2014

"Hey, what are you guys doing?"

"Just get the @#$% out of here and don't come back. Some heavy s***'s going down."

Interesting watching it after Good Will Hunting a few days ago. Van Sant's a versatile filmmaker.

I mentioned it on my Films of 2003 pod as one of the best of that year, and it really is.

This movie won both the Golden Palm AND the Best Director prizes at Cannes for 2003, usually they split those awards up.

Few movies make me appreciate my life more than Elephant.

Van Sant's take on Columbine is what this movie is. Apparently he originally planned to actually make the movie about that specific incident on April 20, 1999, but he changed his mind and created an original "version" of what happened that day.

It has such a great structure to it.

Normal, everyday life for the first 2 thirds, very normal high school life.

This movie really captures the mundane without making it boring to watch.

Classes, breaks, whatever.

People chatting in the hallways or the lunch room, people in the gym. Nobody doing doing anything special, really. Just another day at school.

And then 2 kids walk in with guns and start killing people.

I don't know if this movie qualifies as a horror movie, but few films are more horrific. The randomness of murder and death is what this movie makes me think about.

As I heard one podcast host say, this movie might be the best cinematic take on death, and what he meant was this:

The day you're murdered; you don't see it coming, you're not ready for it, you don't have a final embrace with your loved ones in the previous scene, or get to say your goodbyes.

One second you're living your life, the next it's taken from you.

Truly, TRULY disturbing.

Especially how low-key and non-flashy the violence is. It reminds me of the violence in Schindler's List. Terrifying to see.

None of us were there at Columbine, we don't know what it felt like. But I imagine it looked an awful lot like is in this film. It's realistic in the way the opening D-Day landing is in Saving Private Ryan.

It just feels wrong, as it should, to see teenagers massacred in a school library. It just gets the wires crossed in my brain, seeing that. Much like the actual tragedy. Knowing that this is about as unnatural as violence can get.

I don't care for showing one of the psycho kids playing a first person shooter game prior to the carnage. I really hope Van Sant doesn't think there's a link there.

As a podcaster pointed out, what would have been nice is if Van Sant showed anyone else playing the same game, showing that video games don't play a significant role in this kind of violence. I adore violent films and video games now and in high school and I've never wanted to hurt anyone.

These 2 guys, much like the Columbine killers were just insane.

Anyway, that's a whole other topic of discussion and my only real issue with the film.

Elephant is a masterpiece.

The first time I watched it I was shaking when it was over.

Haunting film.
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on July 6, 2004
My initial reaction to Elephant was disappointment. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how involved I had become in the movie. Though there is very little dialogue, and scenes glide effortlessly through long unedited shots, I felt as if I was a student at this high school. The 81 minute movie spends about 70 of those introducing the characters through their interactions with each other and the school. By the time the climax is reached, I genuinely felt a loss within myself. I found that my heart was racing, even as the film smoothly and slowly moved through the final moments.
I think that some people will come away from this movie feeling like too much of the story was left untold. I would tend to agree with that. Some characters are underdeveloped, but the emphasis on the film isn't necessarily to understand each individual, but to realize that they all represent a different type of student at any given high school. I'm sure we can all relate to at least one of them.
I was very impressed with the high school kids who were cast to act in the movie. You won't recognize a single name on the list, save Gus Van Sant. They all sold their parts well, especially considering their previous acting experience.
If you are looking for a movie that will be action packed and fast paced, this may not be the one for you. However, if you appreciate film as an art, you will not be disappointed with Elephant. It left me thinking about it long after I had turned it off.
PS - The extras on the DVD are pretty minimal, for those people who are into that. There is a pretty lame behind the scenes piece that lasts about 8 minutes, a theatrical trailer, and a trailer for HBO Films. Nothing else. I would have liked to see a little bit more about the cast and development of the story. Extra features don't really matter to me too much, though. I grew up with VHS.
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on July 2, 2004
Written and directed by Gus Van Sant, this film is about a massacre at a high school. The film is stark, and rather boring, showing the viewers a very ordinary day at the school. There are long shots of the students walking down corridors. There are glimpse of characters and incidents that seem to be leading somewhere but do not. There are unexplained details and one particular scene that is shown over and over again from different perspectives.

There is no real hint of what is coming but the audience is prepared. After all, we all know about Columbine. Mostly, I was wondering when it would happen. And it did. Violently.

Purposely, there were no explanations and I understand this was the filmmaker's intent. And so I never got to know any of the characters. I therefore couldn't identify with them or emphasize when they were so suddenly struck down. There was also no dramatic background of the two boys who did the killing. No excuses. No real history. Just the pure violent act.
The acting and directing were good. But that wasn't enough for me.
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on July 1, 2004
While a bit wary of films that cover topical subjects like Columbine so soon afterwards, I was sufficiently intrigued by the trailer to seek this out on video.
"Disturbing" says the box. I'm not really one to believe the blurb on video boxes since being stung once too often by videos that proclaim they are 'Hilarious', but i was a bit more inclined to believe this one.
Intro out of the way, where to start? For me the most impressive thing about this film is the direction and visual style. Such examples as a scene in the school office where you are permitted to hear one sentance from various conversations without hearing the whole of any effectively demonstrate that the substance of these exchanges was not what was important, but rather the overall impression of the day to day goings on.
That was a recurrent kind of aesthetic within the film. The long passages where a character is followed around the school are not really important in terms of plot, and what happens when they reach their destination is not the point. It is clear that these sections are intended to show the variety of people within the school (over the subject's shoulder), to demonstrate the potential scope of the event you know is going to happen. Unfortunately these sections grow tiresome after a while.
This is also the purpose in focussing on several characters, and showing how their lives overlap throughout the day by the use of staggered timelines.
Tension is created and maintained effectively also through the non-linear passage of time, since the viewer is made aware of what is going to happen, and allowed to feel it may be right around the corner only to find that they are transferred to another part of the school at another time.
As the story progresses and we get to know a little of the boys who perpetrate the crime, we are allowed to see how they are able to order assault rifles off the internet and meticulously plan their raid but with no explanation of their reasons for doing so. Though again, the reasons are not the focus. It is the same with all characters; we're allowed close enough to have some level of understanding of them and to feel an empathy with them, but no specific information is given, or indeed needed.It is the focus on the minutiae of the characters daily lives (such as the extended segment of a boy developing some photogaphs, or the geeky girl getting changed) that gives the viewer this effect.
I did enjoy the way the film was made, and the way the story was told, but ultimately I ended up disappointed. It seems to move along at the same pace with the same level of tension throughout, and then just... ends... in the middle of the attack (or perhaps towards the end). It just seems a little lazy to get so far and then offer no denouement. It left me and my girlfriend saying, "what?... is that it?"
Other problems were that there was no real panic once the attack started. After hearing the footage from Columbine in Michael Moore's film, I expected a little screaming, maybe some people running in blind panic... but none.
And the lad who passes the killers as they enter the school: rather than raise the alarm, call the cops or whatever he just trots around telling the small amount of people who aren't already inside, "Could you not go in there? Please?"
Except the lack of an ending, these other defects are unimportant generally, since the overall atmosphere of the film is what really counts, and that keeps the viewer riveted.
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on June 30, 2004
Great films draw from three wells: spectacle, plot, and metaphor.
So here comes Elephant, and what have we got:
In terms of spectacle, well, it's Columbine transported to Van Sant's elegaically dingy Portland. Otherwise, Elephant goes for minimalism--beautifully slow, attentive camera work, naturalistic acting (or no acting), very few cuts, and long stretches of unadorned ambient sounds.
In terms of plot, well, there isn't any. Van Sant throws a couple of fakes your way early, but then quickly drops all story lines, reasoning that they don't matter, given the outcome. In case you didn't get the hint, check out the wordless introduction of one character who never speaks and is killed off within two minutes.
As for metaphor, that's been deliberately minimized as well. Elias is the central metaphor for the film itself, simply recording what's happening through photographs. The film's one overt stab at metaphor just doesn't work: one killer silently picking off victims in a video game, accompanied by the other killer playing Beethoven on piano. And even though we know it's the last day for many of the characters we see, metaphorically speaking, nothing in the plot or cinematography digs deeper into this idea.
With Elephant, Van Sant presents horror as a result of flat affect and lack of imagination. In terms of reality, it's probably accurate. In terms of film, it makes for dull fare. It's a big reason why hearing the Columbine story on AM radio, even years after the initial shock, is more stirring than the fictions of Elephant.
Van Sant was looking for the mystery inside the literal: two kids go on a shooting spree without a trace of emotion. The trouble is, there is no mystery. We know what happened and we know why, both in this film and at Columbine. And sadly, in Elephant's world, we don't know enough to care about the victims beyond the fact that they're just kids. In the end, the affectlessness and consequences were more shocking in Larry Clark's Bully; the mystery emerged from the ordinary more memorably in Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and even Van Sant's own classic, Drugstore Cowboy. And the kids are more moving in any film you've ever seen that features kids in a decent plot.
So Van Sant, a terrific filmmaker, has made a literal film whose spectacle has been overshadowed in reality by 9/11, whose structure lacked the spine, conflict and heightened stakes of a plot, and whose message and imagery don't carry the heft of metaphor.
Weirdly, Elephant's companion film for the year may just be The Passion of The Christ, another numbingly literal interpretation of an event that should have been redolent with metaphor. The evangelical crowd championed that film, and the arthouse crowd defended this one, but incredibly, both films fall flat for similar reasons.
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on June 25, 2004
What got me about this movie is how physically scared I felt at the shooting scene, and I consider myself a jaded movie-watcher. But my skin was clammy and my heart rate sped up ..... perhaps because there is no reasoning with the shooters, they don't want anything except to shoot you.
The movie just shows various kids -- not necessarily friends with each other -- going through their regular day at school. Except it is also a day when two of their fellow students decide to execute -- literally -- a premeditated plan involving homemade bombs and guns.
The pure randomness of it all is what is frightening - for they don't devote any extra screen time to the two shooters, and there are other students who are picked on and could have just as easily done it. I think the title "Elephant" stems from the saying "ignoring the elephant in the room" - it's huge, everyone knows it's there, but no one wants to talk about it or figure out how to make it leave.
This could be any high school -- in fact, the only time you know the name of this high school is in 2 seconds in the background. It's Watt High School -- which could easily be parlayed into "What high school?" Answer: any high school.
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on June 22, 2004
I saw this at Cannes last year and hated it there. I was pretty disappointed that it won the grand prize. I decided to watch it again to see if it grew on me at all and it was just worse the second time. Gus has effectively wasted three hours of my life. This movie is completely pointless. It is nothing more than a "artistic" recreation of an event that I'm sure most people would rather not see, especially the parents of the Columbine kids. What is the purpose of recreating a tragic event if you're not going to say something about it? Is he just trying to rub it in? Everyone who claims that this is "real" and "hard to swallow" is just not very intelligent. This is neither real nor hard to swallow. It is hard to sit through, however, because its awful. This could just have easily been a 20 minute short done by a fifth grader. It may have even been good that way but it's totally unnecessary to hold an uncreative shot for 3 minutes. It's not creative at all to set up a good looking shot in order to have a girl walk across the floor towards the camera. That's just amatuer. There isn't a simgle plot point until about an hour into the movie, which is just a little late considering the movie is about an hour and twenty minutes. You're wasting your time watching this and if you like it after seeing it then I feel sorry for you.
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on June 19, 2004
Gus Van Sant's ELEPHANT is ostensibly about the Columbine incident; that is certainly what spurred me on to watch the film in the first place. But when I saw this film the first time, the thing I responded to most was its elegant recreation of high school. The atmosphere, the rhythms, the people---it captures all these things with uncanny accuracy, and it certainly brought me back to my own high school experience. If nothing else, it's an objective portrait of a normal high school and various characters that attend it on what appears to be a normal day until two of its characters (both outsiders, of course) tragically shake it up with pointless death and destruction. It's a movie that merely looks on dispassionately as people talk and things both significant and insignficant happen at this high school. It refuses to make cheap melodrama out of any of the situations or characters, and it absolutely refuses to provide any reassuring answers to explain what could have lead up to this terrible incident. Perhaps there simply aren't any easy answers to be found (despite what politicians, activist groups, and other fearmongers have offered in the past).
A movie about the Columbine incident was bound to be made eventually---it is too disturbing and has caused too much discussion for it to be ignored by the cinema. This was the probably the only way it could be done without cheapening it in any way. Other films might take the incident and fashion a big subjective statement out of it, like Michael Moore did with his illuminating Academy Award-winning documentary BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE. ELEPHANT takes a more objective fictional route, and anything less than the definitive film about Columbine, now and in the near future, would be hard to imagine. But to label it simply a "Columbine film" is too limiting: it also works as an evocative portrait of the high school experience, and it does so in a manner that could be best described as undramatic yet strangely hypnotic. Highly recommended, though decidedly not for all tastes.
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