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Elephant (2003)
Rated R

Starring: Alex Frost, Eric Deulin and John Robinson

Rating:
**1/2
out of
*****

In 1999, the country was shocked when two boys in Littleton, Colorado loaded themselves up with military hardware and entered Columbine High School to kill as many of their classmates as they could before killing themselves. Many people tried to explain the shootings as the result of the easy availability of violent videogames or Marilyn Manson's music. Gus Van Sant's Elephant chronicles the events of a similar day at a fictional school in Portland, Oregon. He offers no explanations at all.

Through the use of seemingly endless tracking shots and the repeated use of several scenes from different perspectives, Van Sant documents the daily activities of the victims and the killers. His film offers little in the way of plot development, character development or motives. It simply appears to be a visual diary of the last day of several high school students' lives.

As the film unreels, we visit with John (John Robinson), a surfer-type with an alcoholic father (Timothy Bottoms). The baton -- in the form of the camera -- is passed then to Eli (Elias McConnell), a photography buff who takes pictures of a couple in the park before school. Then, we see Michelle (Kristen Hicks), an introverted girl who doesn't want to wear shorts to gym class. On to Nathan (Nathan Tyson) and Carrie (Carrie Finklea), an attractive couple who are signing out of school to go to lunch together and who may or may not be expectant parents. And, on and on, until we get to Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulin), two misfits who don't seem to be well-liked and have a fixation on automatic weapons and Nazi documentaries among other things.

It's hard to tell why they are they way they are because -- as with the other young people the film briefly introduces -- the viewer isn't given a sense of who they really are or what they've done to be pigeonholed as the film tries to do to them with such a small amount of given information. We're only given a few minutes with each person and then on to the next. Is Van Sant trying to say that that's how teens are? That they only take a few minutes to make up their minds before they deem someone a "geek" or a "hottie" (Insert your own "cool" jargon. I'm too old to know what the proper terms are anymore.) I'm not sure I'm sure what he's trying to say, if anything. We do learn enough to keep them from being completely anonymous, but not much more.

He certainly doesn't lay the blame for the eventual killing spree on any one thing or even a group of things. Van Sant merely dangles possibilities in front of his viewers and lets them decide. In the process, since nothing more than what is absolutely necessary is ever revealed about the characters or the location in which the film takes place, a tension begins to build that increases slowly but steadfastly through the entire film. Even as the credits roll, the tension still exists. There is no orgasmic action film payoff. The killing spree doesn't provide any closure or further explanations. It just stops.

Trivia: Almost all the kids in this film are non-actors, and their real first names are used. (Source: The Internet Movie Database)

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