Controversial 'Elephant'

Gus Van Sant attacks high school violence in indie flick

Elephant 3 / 4 stars

R, 81m Starring: Alex Frost and Eric Deulen Directed by Gus Van Sant opens Friday Nov. 7

"Elephant," Gus Van Sant's latest film, gives audiences a glimpse into the world of a typical American high school (full of jocks, preps, skateboarders and geeks) on a day when two societal exiles are on the hunt for their fellow classmates.

The two outcasts, Alex and Eric, are out for revenge against their school in "Elephant," a film loosely based on the Columbine shootings.

Alex and Eric are ordinary high school outsiders in all respects, except for their vengeful taste for blood. The film takes place on an ordinary fall morning with a symbolically crisp feeling in the air that foreshadows the chilling months to come. Audiences are introduced to characters in a rather procedural manner by encountering Elias snapping photos of his classmates, John being driven to school by his alcoholic father, Nate meeting up with his girlfriend Carrie after football practice, Michelle rushing to her job at the library and Brittany, Jordan and Nicole gossiping in the cafeteria about their lame parents. The two characters most significant to the plot, Alex and Eric, are surprisingly not explored until halfway through the story.

The film's characters manifest themselves in a truly unorthodox method that keeps audiences from getting jaded by a seemingly obvious plot. Van Sant first explores the secondary characters in great depth before focusing on Alex and Eric. Viewers become sucked into the awkwardness of Michelle, Elias' photography and later the seemingly perfect life of Eric.

As Alex and Eric's plan to brutally murder their classmates unfolds, audiences become extremely sympathetic to even the teenage stupidity of Brittany, Jordan and Nicole.

The camera work used in "Elephant" is probably the greatest achievement of the film. One prominent camera angle follows characters from a perspective just above their head. The camera maintains this position while each character interacts with another, allowing viewers to grasp a firm understanding of character development.

Next to the camera work, the use of inexperienced actors brings a level of realism to the film. All of the actors in the film are still high school students and more surprisingly, many of them do not even wish to pursue acting. In fact, only two of the 12 central characters in the film are even part of their high school drama department.

"Elephant" deals with the sensitive issue of high school shootings in a compassionate way. Instead of giving just one perspective on the school shooting, the story introduces each character without bias. This objective approach gives the film a significant, all-encompassing element that is crucial to the plot's growth. However, the film lacks the ability to snatch the audience's attention throughout brief points in the film.

Van Sant focuses a bit too much on dull events that are irrelevant to the plot. For instance, Elias is depicted developing film in a dark room for several minutes. It holds no significance to the underlying plot of the story, and only seems to exist to stress Elias' creative ability. Granted, the director may have an artistically driven ulterior motive for this particular scene. Still, whatever the director's intention may be, scenes like this one went beyond the development of an adequate character representation.

As a whole, "Elephant" is an exceptionally well-crafted film. The camera work alone makes the film worth seeing. However, it is not an action movie by any means - the majority of the movie is based upon calm character introductions.

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