AARON MESH, WW staff writerIf you can bear it, now is the necessary time to return to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant.
Next year marks the 10th anniversary of the director’s re-creation of the Columbine killings. That means it’s been a decade since Van Sant set up cameras in 2002 at Northeast Portland’s Whitaker Middle School—condemned the year before, after WW revealed it was contaminated with radon gas—and followed a poison that was even harder to trace. I don’t need to tell you how that horror continues to stalk us. All you have to do is turn on the television to see the pictures: a mall in Clackamas County, an elementary school in Connecticut.
So why should you go back to Elephant, when it never went away? Why should you put yourself through that again? It is not a healing movie. For all its drowsy imagery, it is relentlessly shattering. But Elephant is vital—not because the movie provides answers, but because it provides a clear demarcation of where the search for meaning must stop.
In its first hour, the film rifles through every potential root cause of mass shootings: bullying, Nazi obsessions, inattentive parents, violent video games. But it never lands on a solution. In fact, it seems to drift along as if medicated or distracted. This is Van Sant at the full extension of his Béla Tarr-influenced long takes, and his camera follows a footfall length behind the heads of the amateur teen actors as they amble through Whitaker’s halls. They go nowhere, until they suddenly reach oblivion.
The downside of such open-endedness is that it can at times reduce Elephant to an aestheticized study of beautiful boys engaged in reflexive violence. (The male-on-male gaze is an unmistakable pillar of Van Sant’s canon—depending on your sympathies, he’s either a dirty not-so-old man or a brave pioneer reveling in the fact that gay people as well as straight want to look at pretty young things.) But both the pristine gorgeousness of the male leads and the seeming aimlessness of the scenes are deployed to a definite purpose.
And here is why it is vital to endure Elephant once more. The movie is not the floating poem you remember. It is an iron trap. It snaps shut on us, forcing us into a meat locker with a human mind we do not want to consider. Those long hallway shots? They follow at the exact angle of a first-person shooter game. And the beatific face of Alex (Alex Frost), who seems like the more gentle and impressionable of the two killers, is a mask. It hides a person who anticipates a morning of random slaughter with the advice, “Most importantly, have fun, man.” Once he gets his hands on a gun—grotesquely easily, since it’s home-delivered—he turns the outside world into the inside of his head.
Van Sant closes Elephant with a shot backing away from Alex as he taunts two classmates with his semiautomatic rifle, deciding which one to shoot (or shoot first) with a game of “Eeny, meeny, miney, moe.” There is no solving this. There is no comprehending him. The world’s more full of weeping than we can understand. And so we cut to clouds, and to credits—a list of all the people responsible.