Elephant is a curious film. A semi-remake of Alan Clarke’s film of the same name, but set as a fictionalised version of the Columbine massacre.
Producing the film for HBO, Van Sant takes full advantage of the TV movie format: the Academy aspect ratio frame, much like the 1:1 frame in Mommy (2014), captures the focus of each individual within their own world, passing by the world of every other person, whose adjacent narratives we view from different perspectives as the narrative develops. Even when we are looking at a group of characters, the focus remains on one person within that group. Because that is the message that high school relays: individual achievement. Universities relay a similar message too. It is the actions of the individual which resulted in the shooting. The way the narrative is told, as a series of vignettes focusing on individual characters and their roles in the hours leading up to the shooting, seems perfect for the film’s division into ad breaks.
This idea of individual achievement questionably stems into effect theory. Eric plays a computer game on his laptop, shooting an endless stream of identical characters (with bloody results), seeing no distinction between them. Later, Alex and Eric compare tallies of how many people they killed – like the number of points on a videogame. But the school system is run in exactly the same way: individuals are graded into numbers and bands of achievements. This isn’t positioned as a solitary motive either: Van Sant ensured that he didn’t tie the characters down to there being an explanation. There’s too many factors: Alex has yogurt thrown at him in class; suffers from mental illness, hearing voices in his head, that goes recognised by nobody; the two boys are left alone at home, unsupervised by parents.
The film criticises how easily obtainable firearms are, ordered online with one-day delivery. When the UPS guy turns up at the door, he doesn’t question why Alex and Eric aren’t at school, just says “lucky you” and thanks them, making no effort to get answers. When John warns people not to go in the school, he’s largely ignored.
But the film also alludes to the shooting as a reaction against homophobia. There’s an often unspoken sense of Bonnie and Clyde between Alex and Eric, barely evident in their mannerisms towards each other, but we see them kiss in a naked shower scene. Some of the victims of the massacre we see taking part in a class discussion over whether you can tell if somebody is gay based on their appearance. We’re never given a sense of these characters being queer (besides the tropes of the loner kid, often channelled into the gay narrative) – thus partly inviting the audience to question what they see, rather than making an immediate assumption of who these characters are.
In part, it reaches to the comedic: Alex plays classical music on the piano, as if an embodiment of the melodramatic Phantom of the Opera. He watches Nazis parading with Hitler on TV with Eric. Yet, from another lens, these are also the qualities of a model student: Alex draws comic book art, plays the piano well and watches history documentaries; he’s the model of masculinity, using logs as a shooting range. He meets expectations set upon him, yet has no way in which to channel these publicly, finding the school environment destructive compared to his home environment, yet isn’t home schooled.
In part, it acts as a mystery. The film doesn’t point us in any immediate direction towards Alex and Eric being the killers, before John sees them entering the school in faux military gear and becomes suspicious. John has an alcoholic father, catching the attention of the principal by arriving at school late; Elias wanders around the park before school, taking photos of a punk rocker couple out of nowhere. It misleads us to question that any of these people could have taken the same path. The idea of a loner turned killer could have been uncomplex and cliched, yet our focal characters throughout the film are loners. Even I can project my high school self onto Alex: being bullied in class; finding the high school environment deafening and so on. But this stops when he shows any hint of intent to massacre. I can project myself onto Elias too, taking photographs and awkwardly walking up to strangers, and onto Michelle, spending her time in the library and feeling body issues.
In many ways, the film’s presentation of high school is mundane. This isn’t the high school of Clueless (1995) or Mean Girls (2004). In many ways it depends upon tropes: the loner, the slacker, the photographer, the jock, the insecure girl, the bitchy girls obsessed about boyfriends, and so on. Yet it deals with these characters realistically, not as cartoons. Because this is what high school is: a mundane bore, where people don’t really learn stuff, and have odd conversations leading in a million different directions (notice that the conversation about boyfriends is only one part of the girls’ conversation).
Much of the film is spent in silence, with characters walking around the school, followed by a one-shot camera in a restricting frame. Yet the mundane can be interrupted in an instant; diverse lives with potential, like with photography, or just a life the same as everybody else’s, can be taken away in a instant.