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Elephant

Year: 2003
Studio: HBO Films
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Gus Van Sant
Cast: John Robinson, Alex Frost
If you've seen Australian Murali Thalluri's 2.37 you'll have heard some of the criticism of how it was a rip-off of this film. I hadn't seen Elephant at that stage, and now I have I can understand people feeling suspicious because of the similarities, but both films stand very much on their own.

What's more, this towers over much of what else has come from Hollywood or any other film movement. Superlatives like 'searing' 'brutal' and 'raw' are bandied about a lot in movie criticism to the point I don't even like to use them, but if I had to break my own rule, Elephant is the one that would make me.

Like September 11, no director in the mainstream system would dare comment on a high school shooting - let alone deconstruct one so painfully. But like Larry Clark, Van Sant is the one director who's proven he understands kids when the rest of the film industry thinks they're all rejects from a Girls Gone Wild film clip.

The title is said to refer to the elephant in the room of American society, that the phenomenon of school bullying collides with America's cultural love affair with the gun and results in tragedies like Columbine Higth and Virginia Tech.

A handful of kids are introduced going to school in an everyday American suburban locale - from cherubic John (with a face that looks scarily like that of Scarlett Johansson) to the lonely misfit Michelle. But it's Alex we hardly look at twice when he's bullied and picked on by some other kids in class.

Van Sant plays fast and loose with the structure, esablishing rules and breaking them just as quickly. Scenes overlap and later we see them from different perspectives. It's an effective device but is soon made clear we have no idea how many mores times we'll see something, or from what angle. Main characters are introduced with title cards, and they're all people we assume will be pivotal to the terrible events until the last one to be introduced leaves the story just as quickly (and shockingly) as he appeared.

Thanks to the inventive storytelling method, it's only about a quarter of the way through when John asks Alex and Eric what they're doing - arriving at school dressed in camo and black and carrying heavy bags of equipment. They tell him to stay out because 'some shit's going to go down'.

It gives the entire film from then on an effective and disquieting sense of doom, and later, watching the two boys planning to round up and murder their fellow students is more chilling than you've seen in any movie bad guy. When the carnage is unleashed Van Sant handles it as lanquidly and lyrically as he does the rest of the movie. Like he did in Gerry, he employs lots of long, slow moments of silence, dreamlike slow motion and a camera slowly drifting across a room, even when teenagers are being gunned down nearby.

It's as far from Hollywood as you can get. There are no heroes or villains, the dorky loser who secretly loves the hot cheerleader doesn't swoop in to save the day. Van Sant is a fly showing just what you imagine it would be like. Like real life there are no rules and the whole film is given a terrible air of authenticity.

It should be compulsory viewing for students, teachers and parents everywhere. Affecting and horrific, it will stay with you a long time.

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