Elephant is deliberately minimalist, stripping away dialogue and context to provide a brutal depiction of the Troubles in Belfast during the late 1980s.
It remains chilling viewing, yet I somewhat prefer Gus Van Sant’s approach. Clarke asks the audience to come to their own conclusions based on the stimulus on the screen, to spark a conversation about the “elephant in the room”. He kind of did: the film received heavy backlash upon its broadcast, especially from viewers in Belfast. (The extract from Open Air on the Blu-ray, interviewing Alan Clarke and Danny Boyle after the broadcast, is essential viewing for this background.) Whereas Van Sant’s approach was to speculate multiple reasons as to why the school shooting was carried out, leaving the audience to determine which factor they deem the most important or influential; both are thought pieces that leave ambiguity. The main difference is that Van Sant gave every character a background: both the killer and the victim. Here, everyone is a blank slate. The shooters pass for everyday people in casual dress.
But it’s clear the use of Steadicam influenced Van Sant, although here it reinforces the POV of the killers, building up to the suspense of who they may kill next. In Van Sant’s film, it built up suspense from the POV of the victim, leading up to what they may discover in the next classroom. Van Sant limited himself to a school and teenagers killing fellow students and teachers. The IRA don’t discriminate. Anyone, in any corner of Belfast, is not safe.
What is perhaps most impressive is the use of sound: despite the sparse dialogue, there’s an uneasy atmosphere from dogs barking to cars revving. Yet despite a sea of cars, there are no human voices to break the silence and raise the issue. The issue is as it appears on screen.
Elephant is worth watching, but it is a conversation starter, rather than the final word on the Troubles.