John arrives late after battling with his drunken father. Elias is taking photographs of friends. In a classroom discussion about homosexuality, Acadia is debating whether having pink hair means a person is gay. And, in Alex's bedroom, Alex and Eric are planning to walk into school and gun down their classmates.
Elephant, written and directed by Gus Van Sant, is a fictional film which attempts to portray the reality of American high-school shootings. Using a cast of students, chosen through open auditions, much of the film is based on genuine experience.
The actors, who use their real names, developed the roles to reflect their own interests, fears and concerns. Much of the dialogue is improvised, with Van Sant merely offering guidance and direction. Though only 81 minutes long, sections of the film drag. The action doubles confusingly back and forwards in time. We watch Elias shake a film canister, preparing his negatives for developing. We sit in the changing-room with sports geek Michelle, while classmates tease her behind her back.
It builds dramatic tension but it is also the reality of the school day: repetitive, monotonous, unremarkable. And into this walk two killers. When their killing spree begins, it is compelling and horrifying. We see the boys pick off their schoolmates one by one. Armed with a rifle, Eric stands over his headteacher. "Y'know, there are others out there like me," he says, with terrifying resonance. "They will get you, if you fuck with them like you fucked with me."
The similarities to the murderers' shoot-'em-up computer games are graphic.
But Van Sant does not attempt to offer any insight into the murderers' psyche. There are, to his credit, no trite glimpses of home trauma or abusive relationships. Instead, we see a convincing portrait of a group of nice kids: some happy, some lonely, some thoughtful, some vacuous, but all overwhelmingly familiar.
Elephant is a gripping glimpse into the lives of ordinary young people, and how they can be senselessly, brutally interrupted.
Elephant goes on general release today