Fans of the classic Star Trek television series who paid close attention may have noticed a series of pipes running along the corridors of the Enterprise labeled "GNDN" and wondered (as geeks often do) what vital role they provided for the ship. It turns out "GNDN" was an inside joke by the art department meaning "Goes Nowhere, Does Nothing". Elephant is 100% GNDN.
On April 20th, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into their high school just outside Littleton, Colorado, armed with shotguns, pistols, a rifle, knives, and a variety of homemade explosives. There they carried out one of the most notorious school massacre's in the history of the United States that left 24 students wounded and 14 people dead… including the gunmen by their own hand. What was it that caused these two kids to carry out such a heinous crime against their classmates? There is a long list of potential ingredients needed to make monsters like this and nobody really knows for certain the specific formula used here… especially not writer/director Gus Van Sant who created a film based on these events so incredibly pointless, boring, and devoid of emotion that I suspect it won't be topped until Flies Fucking: The Motion Picture hits a theater near you.
I suppose the title is a nod to the idiom "the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about". I can tell you that Van Sant definitely doesn't want to talk about it. Blink and you'll miss the microscopic grains of motive that inspire the two kids in this film to go Jerry Bruckheimer on their classmates. No, Van Sant would much rather film people just walking around the school. Just walking… and walking… and walking… and stopping to have a brief conversation that has no bearing on the film… and then walking some more… and some more… The first 45 minutes of this art-class reject is literally nothing but walking from one location to another so coffee-shop prophets can hail it as "Ground-breaking!" between drags of their Chai Latte's and clove cigarettes. No time whatsoever is spent elevating the victims above living clay pigeons. The zombie Nazi fodder in Doom have more complex emotional make-ups and that's really all the use Van Sant has for the students here.
There is no character development in this film. None. Zero. Zilch. In fact, outside of the bloodbath you know is coming there isn't even a plot to be found at all. Van Sant just follows a handful of students as they endlessly walk around their high school in one long, mind-numbing, single-shot take after another until their hollow persona's are ruthlessly gunned down and the audience can have it's instinctive reaction to brutality. Van Sant presents no root for the problem and offers no solution. He seems complacent in the idea that showing children being murdered is enough to overlook his cowardice for not bothering to take a stance at all.
The critics who rave about this film (and there are a lot) praise Van Sant for his minimalist approach. I think the decision to abandon all the strengths of the medium to tackle an immensely complicated issue such as school violence is like photographing rainbows with black-and-white film. I have only seen one other piece of film as shallow and absolutely devoid of purpose as this. It happened when my uncle set the camcorder down on our pool table without turning it off and we were treated to two-hours of green felt, ambient noise, and the occasional torso walking into frame.
Incidentally, look for Corner-Pocket Christmas coming to a theater near you this holiday season.