On an average weekday students at a Portland high school go about their various business. All seems ordinary until it becomes a apparent that a couple of boys planned something to shock them all.
This day in the life of a school like the one in Columbine in the United States where senseless killings took place of students by students is as enigmatic as the subject matter. We follow a car as it bumps and weaves along the road until finally John steps out and insists he drive to school instead of his drunken father. The camera is then static on the edge of a football field for what seems like ages with kids running in and out of frame until finally one of them, Nathan, picks up his gear and heads towards school. We follow in real time. He reaches the school and heads down the corridor to meet up with girlfriend Carrie. As the camera prowls the corridors we pick up with aspiring photographer Elias and library volunteer Michelle, and briefly with others. It's seemingly an austere, unmotivated exercise.
This is a film that is appreciated in retrospect. The end is shocking. Van Sant refuses to explore in any detail any of the characters in the film, including the violently disposed Alex and Eric. The result is a day in the life of a seemingly normal but unusually quiet and underpopulated school in which time is juggled so that we occasionally come across the same moment from a different perspective. The kids improvised scenes which were then incorporated into the film, they are mostly non-professional actors.
I found Elephant initially irritating and then amazingly moving and tense as van Sant introduces us briefly to banal lives that are in a moment immensely fragile. It is an austere film, but it's a very pure and powerful one.
Comments by David Stratton: Gus Van Sant's inventive approach to the Columbine high school massacre is distinguished by some exceptionally fine video photography – long tracking shots following character down the school corridors – and convincing performances from the non-professional cast. There are a couple of minor errors of judgement, but generally this is a disturbing, suspenseful film about a tragedy that shocked America.