Gus Van Sant’s Elephant doesn’t make any big statements about gun control or mass shootings. What it does, however, is raise some seriously thought provoking questions – one of them could be about gun control, of which I have no doubt. Van Sant leaves that up to the audience. The film, obviously based on the Columbine High School massacre, follows an unconventional structure to depict the events that occur over the course of a day. This film is all about technique. If we were to describe the events in terms of alphabets, the film doesn’t move from A to B and B happening because of A and C happening because of B, but sometimes A and B seem to be taking place simultaneously, sometimes B takes place before A and sometimes either of them are repeated again but from a different perspective this time.
These transitions are done beautifully. Van Sant himself did the editing. The camera follows one character for a while and then follows another one – all these done with long and smooth tracking shots. What each character does is their daily, mundane activities except for these two male shooters, who are going to significantly alter the lives of these other characters that we saw earlier. It’s the kind of stuff that Stephen King would use as the opening paragraph of one of his novels. It doesn’t provide any explanation as to why the two men in the film did what they did. It merely suggests through few scenes and makes us wonder if this could be the reason or that could be the reason. There is a scene where these two men kiss inside a shower and there is another scene where they are shown playing a violent video game and later, watching a Nazi propaganda video. But it also shows one of them as a potential piano prodigy and an artist.
What exactly do these things tell us about their psyche? Nothing actually. We have no idea what they are thinking. There are no clear answers. It is possible that they are socially awkward and have major acceptance issues. We read about similar incidents like these in the papers all the time, especially in the last few years. Senseless killings, all of them. We are frustrated by the meaninglessness of it all. Some of these killers have a motive and some of them probably think they have a motive and everyone thinks that is why they did it. Maybe they acting out on a whim because, like Michael Caine says in The Dark Knight, some people just want to watch the world burn. It’s not possible to understand what chemical reaction inside their brains prompted them to act this way.
Van Sant cites the 1989 short film of the same name by Alan Clarke as a major influence. I’ve seen it and I can say that it’s one of the most unconventional short films I’ve seen. It has little to no dialogues and depicted 18 different killings with different killers, all happening at random and no information is provided on who the killers are, where they are coming from or why they are doing it. The title ‘Elephant’ obviously came from the idiom “Elephant in the room” and the ‘obvious truth’ in that refers to the sectarian violence happening in Northern Ireland. Van Sant was also inspired by the tracking shots that were used in it.