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Should I Watch..? 'Elephant' (2003)

Updated on April 3, 2022
Benjamin Cox profile image

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Poster for the film
Poster for the film | Source

What's the big deal?

Elephant is a drama film released in 2003 and was written, edited and directed by Gus Van Sant. The film is the second in his so-called Death trilogy, separated by 2002's Gerry and the 2005 release Last Days. Like the other films, it presents a fictionalised version of real events - in this case, the tragic Columbine High School shooting in which 13 people were killed in 1999 served as the film's inspiration. The film was highly controversial at the time depicting events in the style it did and raised fears of influencing similar copy-cat attacks. Nevertheless, the film received a warm reception from critics and even won the Palme d'Or at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. Sadly, the film remains as relevant as ever with school shootings still occurring with alarming regularity in the United States but the film's aim is not to review gun control, merely to provoke a debate about the levels of violence seen in schools.


3 stars for Elephant

What's it about?

The film opens on a grey morning in Portland, Oregon where John is being driven to school by his alcoholic father. As the car veers around the road, John realises that his dad is drunk so he takes over the wheel. When John gets to school, we see a typical day unfolding - students making their way to class, a photography student taking snaps for his portfolio and two boys being picked on by bullies. Except these two boys have very dark intentions indeed.

Alex and Eric share a unique friendship and they openly plan to commit mass murder in their school. Buying guns on the Internet and formulating their plans in front of the other students, nobody would suspect what was about to happen. As the boys approach the school loaded with guns and ammunition, they are spotted by John who suddenly begins to warn people to stay away...


What's to like?

Elephant is not a movie that shies away from asking an awful lot of questions of the viewer. I presume that the film was made specifically for an American audience, given that the film openly asks how these kids can get their hands on guns so easily. But for the most part, it is a terribly tense build-up to the inevitable tragedy - yes, it's slow but because we know what's coming, it makes the realism of the picture and the horror of the final act all the more terrifying. It makes us care about the people we see, living their everyday lives about to be plunged into a nightmarish scenario that is sadly all too common.

The unknown cast all help to create this powerful illusion of reality and as the two gunmen approach, we want to reach inside the screen and do something to stop them or help others escape. Van Sant is to be praised for making a violent movie that doesn't glamorise it in any way - the gunmen aren't to be reasoned with, there's no SWAT team coming in to save the day. The movie shows us real lives and then takes them away in the cruellest manner imaginable. It makes extremely harrowing viewing but for a teenage audience (especially in the US), it challenges you to really think about what you're seeing and hopefully, how to avoid similar events reoccurring.

The film spends most of its duration following the various students around, making it feel all the more real
The film spends most of its duration following the various students around, making it feel all the more real | Source

Fun Facts

  • The school where the film was shot (Whitaker Middle School in Portland, Oregon) was torn down in 2007 due to black mould and asbestos. It had already been shut down when filming had started.
  • Almost all of the kids appearing in Elephant were not actors at the time and nearly all of them use their real names. In fact, much of the film was improvised there and then.
  • There are a total of just 88 shots in the film, most of those coming in the final twenty minutes. Most are one-take Steadicam shots like the shot of the three girls walking through the cafeteria which takes 5 minutes and 19 seconds without a cut.

What's not to like?

Because Elephant spends a lot of time on the build-up and making it feel like a genuine school, the film feels like it takes a lot longer than it does. The improvised dialogue gives next to nothing to focus on as we meander aimlessly through the school listening to the various characters waffle on about nothing in particular. It's only when the shooters turn up that the film actually has something to say.

Actually, that isn't true. Van Sant makes a terrible mistake in trying to suggest what it is that drove these two boys over the edge - we see them playing violent video games and being bullied in class, for example. I don't subscribe to the view that violent video games make people violent - if they did then why am I a committed pacifist? - but it feels a little simplistic and naïve to try to rationalise their actions. The film is about murder - cold, calculated, cunning and cruel. I get that Van Sant is suggesting that this could happen to anyone and anywhere but it sounded a little bit reactionary to me.

The film seems to deliberately evoke the memories and media images of Columbine to dramatic effect.
The film seems to deliberately evoke the memories and media images of Columbine to dramatic effect. | Source

Should I watch it?

Van Sant deserves praise for highlighting the issues raised in Elephant but it's a hard film to recommend. It's genuinely chilling and develops so much tension that Hitchcock himself would have been proud. But it's also dreadfully slow for the most part and a difficult and challenging film to watch, especially for people like me who aren't used to such stories. However, if the film somehow prevents at least one school shooting in the future then it can be considered a success.

Great For: sparking debate, Americans, high school students

Not So Great For: family nights in, the NRA and other pro-gun lobbyists, victims and families of similar tragedies

What else should I watch?

Personally, Michael Moore's Oscar-winning documentary Bowling For Columbine is more effective at tackling the issues of gun ownership in the US than Elephant is. The film tackles the issues head-on by suggesting that a combination of factors - institutionalised acceptance of violence in the US, a climate of fear perpetuated by the media, pressure from the pro-gun lobby, etc - may be responsible. Of course, like all Moore films, it is heavily biased on his personal agenda but he makes a compelling argument none the less. It makes the issue of gun control seem like a no-brainer to non-American viewers and makes you wonder why on Earth they don't do something about it.

Taking a somewhat different route to explore violence in schools, Japan offers viewers a slightly alternative offering in Battle Royale where a random class of pupils are dropped off on an isolated island and given three days to kill each other. Based on the novel by Koushun Takami, the film is certainly more visceral and the violence more graphic. But it carries a satirical edge to it that isn't immediately obvious and is a film of frightening quality.

Main Cast

Alex Frost
Eric Deulen
John Robinson
Elias McConnell
Matt Malloy
Mr Luce, the principal

Technical Info

Gus Van Sant
Written By
Gus Van Sant
Running Time
81 minutes
Release Date (UK)
30th January, 2004
Crime, Drama

© 2015 Benjamin Cox


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