First thing's first: Gus Van Sant's Elephant, though a rapturous and terrifying memorial to the Columbine massacre, brings nothing to the discussion on high-school violence. No causes, no solutions, no moral or intellectual perspective, none of the facile politicking that immediately followed in the incident's wake. Those looking for answers, or even insights, are certain to be disappointed by Van Sant's audacious experiment, which offers a delicate and uninflected meditation on high-school life during a not-so-ordinary day. A natural companion piece to Gerry, his minimalist landscape film about two men lost in the desert, Elephant creates gorgeous, wide-open spaces that allow viewers the freedom to reflect without having a point-of-view imposed on them. In that sense, the film does the important service of stealing Columbine back from pundits and politicians on both ends of the ideological spectrum, all of whom seized upon the event so opportunistically. With ace cinematographer Harris Savides' elegant Steadicam prowling the halls, Van Sant quietly restores some humanity to the victims and perpetrators alike, if only to account for their existence. Using a mostly non-professional cast, he tracks all the students involved in this fateful day, which begins with mundane routine and ends in bloody mayhem. Because there's no time to get past first impressions and truly understand these characters, many appear as Breakfast Club-like stereotypes (The Jock, The Nerd, The Bulimic Princesses), reduced to their place on the high-school caste system. Van Sant spends more time with John Robinson, a wispy blond boy who looks out for his alcoholic father (Timothy Bottoms), and Elias McConnell, a yearbook photographer with an unerring eye for beauty. In the film's most problematic sequence, he also follows the two killers (Alex Frost and Eric Deulen) in the moments leading up to the massacre, using the opportunity to check off all the usual "causes"–violent video games, gun proliferation, Nazism, repressed sexuality–that are commonly attached to such rampages. But collectively, all the players are brought together under the same umbrella, their lives intersecting in a way that none of them could have anticipated. While it seems that Van Sant is merely leading his lambs to the slaughter, Elephant has a gentle, hypnotic tone that's insistently sweet and elegiac, in spite of the horrors that overwhelm the frame. In its juxtaposition of the serene and the violent, the beautiful and the brutal, the film achieves a balance that's exquisitely judged, tiptoeing artfully through a cultural minefield.
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