It's hard to imagine a subject more fraught with potential pitfalls than the Columbine school shooting. A movie that attempts to recreate part of that tragic day could march in any number of distasteful directions. It could be a melodrama, giving voice to the pain of the victims, but that's exploitation; we've already seen the video footage and heard the frantic phone calls. It could be an action movie, building perverse excitement out of watching two boys plan and execute a military operation, but that's irresponsible and, if it tries to condemn the violence with ominous music or a sentimental ending, as such movies often do, hypocritical. Or maybe worst of all, it could attempt to explain what has been debated endlessly since the shooting: why did this happen? But simple explanations would almost certainly appear as hollow here as they did when spit from the mouths of TV's talking heads.
Remarkably, Gus Van Sant's Elephant, a fictionalized re-creation of a portion of that day, avoids all of these traps, but not by ignoring them. Instead it boldly skirts their edges, fully aware that on some level we want all of them — excitement, emotion, and maybe most of all, explanations — but it refuses us everything. Van Sant uses the extremely formal technique of silently following students, one at a time, as they wander the school's hallways. The camera literally glides behind them for minutes at a time. Faces and the backs of heads fill the screen. He uses a shallow focus to put some of the characters in the middle of a blurry haze, individual ships sailing through narrow canals, passing in the dark, each one a story, a problem, a powder keg. The effect can't properly be called suspense, because it's not pleasurable to anticipate what we know is coming, not here. This tension is closer to dread, inevitability.
By hanging silently in these halls, Van Sant seems to invite us to look for meaning. If you were there, if you were in the hallways, or in the classrooms, or in the bathroom, or at the breakfast table, or in the car on the way to school, would you see the reasons for the violence? He slows certain actions down, leading us to believe they are important — a girl watching a boy, a boy watching a girl, a dog leaping — but are they? A mesmerizing, 360-degree pan of a boy's basement room tempts us to search the walls and the floor for a clue, for anything at all, and it gives us plenty of possibilities, but it's noncommittal, unconvinced. Is it the violent video game? The Hitler documentary? Bad parents? Bullies? Easy access to guns? In a speech to a teacher at gunpoint, one of the boys gives us what seems, at first, to be the most overt explanation, but Van Sant anticipates that this is exactly what we want and deliberately turns it over. We hear only part of the speech, without context, and don't know exactly what the boy is talking about. He says he's not going to shoot the teacher because he wants this message to be delivered, but then he does shoot the man. There is no message. So this, too, falls short of the explanation that we want. Van Sant steps up onto a soapbox, opens his mouth, takes a breath, and then steps back down without having said a word. In so doing, he calls attention not to school violence itself but to our need for patterns, resolutions, and simple logic to explain it in a desparate attempt to prevent it.
Van Sant undercuts the other near-pitfalls in similar ways. Having anticipated the shooting for a tense hour, we expect some release when it happens. We expect the pace of the movie to increase dramatically. We expect horror. Fright. Percussive music. But we get none of it. The shooting starts, but then he cuts away to more mundanity elsewhere in the school. We think we're finally going to get our chewy biscuits when the movie suddenly introduces a new character, Bennie, a large, eerily calm boy who begins a long slow approach toward one of the shooters from behind. Here, we assume, we'll get at least a scuffle. The adrenaline begins to flow. But Bennie's life, and therefore the scene, are cut short in a blink, unceremoniously, senselessly, randomly.
The search for meaning causes the movie to be something of a Rorschach test. The opening shot shows three arms jutting from the top of a telephone pole, all in the same direction, attached to their electrical lines, and a fourth arm jutting the opposite direction, with a lamp on the end. When the sun goes down, it's the one jutting the opposite direction that lights up. What do we make of this? The movie seems to develop parallels between the shooters and a well-liked photography student. He wanders the halls with his camera instead of a weapon. He prepares his photo-developing equipment the same way the shooters tinker with their guns. And when one of the shooters takes aim at a student, Van Sant cuts to the photographer who raises his camera and "shoots" the boy who has the gun, not only sharpening the parallel but introducing media into the equation. But ultimately, these parallels lead nowhere, or just to more questions. The most frequent occurrence in the movie is a brief meeting in the hall between individuals strolling past each other, interacting or avoiding interaction entirely. We're left with randomness. We're left with an inebriated father confused about the smoke pouring out of the building and grasping at the arm of his son awkwardly. (The father is played by Timothy Bottoms, who played a roller coaster bomber in 1977's Rollercoaster.) We're left with people gunned down mid-sentence, friend or foe, eeny-meany miny-mo. We're left with time-elapsed shots of the sky. We're left with physics.
Elephant is a great movie. I think. At the very least its gravitas counters the platitudes of television pop psychology, and its fractured, individual-focused narrative demonstrates that a school — with its students isolated and bouncing off of each other like atoms of a heated gas, enclosed by something that can't contain them — is far too complex a microcosm to be understood through brief interpretation.