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Image: Alex Frost
Alex Frost as Alex, a student attending high school in Portland, Oregon until something extremely violent happens in 'Elephant.'
updated 12/15/2003 7:21:45 PM ET 2003-12-16T00:21:45

During the closing credits of “Elephant,” after the names of the kid who played Punk Guy (Wolfgang Williams), the dolly grip (Brian Lawson) and the gaffer (Bruce “Sarge” Fleskes) comes the obligatory disclaimer that this film is a work of fiction, and that any similarity to real people or events is purely coincidental.

Yeah, right. Elephant” is director Gus Van Sant’s depiction of a seemingly ordinary day at a seemingly ordinary high school. But during its climax — when two camouflage-clad students walk around campus, killing their classmates one by one with the arsenal they’ve assembled — it’s impossible not to think of what happened during an extraordinary day in 1999 at Columbine High School.

The film, which was a surprise winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is so similar to the events of that day and so graphic, it could be seen as an attempt to exploit the shootings for entertainment or shock value.

Michael Moore went further: He showed the actual surveillance footage from the high school in his 2002 documentary “Bowling for Columbine,” which relentlessly sought a solution to the problem of school shootings. (That segment, by the way, was the most moving part of his entire film.)

Van Sant, who previously explored troubled youth with “My Own Private Idaho,” “Drugstore Cowboy” and even the feel-good “Finding Forrester,” seems less interested in pointing fingers; he’d rather let the events of the day play out, and challenges us to interpret answers for ourselves.

Realism reigns
And there are no easy answers. Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen) seem to be misfits. The popular kids tease them. They’re into guns, they play violent video games and watch a TV show about Hitler. Before going on their shooting spree, they share a tentative kiss. All of this — or none of this — could have driven them to kill.

Van Sant also challenges us simply to pay attention, employing the same extreme minimalism that made his film “Gerry” — in which Matt Damon and Casey Affleck trekked through the desert and barely spoke — so agonizing.

This time, Van Sant uses the technique much more powerfully. With long tracking shots, he follows several students as they walk across campus, through the halls, into classrooms, into the bathrooms. Harris Savides’ crisp cinematography heightens the sense of realism.

The “actors” are actual students who helped write the script, which was largely improvised and consists of long stretches of silence. This can get boring, but that’s necessary if Van Sant is going to fling himself fully into the conceit of depicting a day in the life.

The approach is oddly riveting, though — not unlike the inexplicable pull of reality television — because the tension builds slowly, and you know what’s going to happen at the end of the day.

But first, Van Sant lulls us with the rhythms of routine.

Easygoing Eli (Elias McConnell) develops pictures for his photography class. The popular couple, Carrie (Carrie Finklea) and Nathan (Nathan Tyson), sign out to have lunch off-campus. Brittany, Jordan and Nicole (Brittany Mountain, Jordan Taylor and Nicole George) pick at their salads and make plans to go shopping before stopping in the girls’ bathroom to make themselves throw up.

That bulimia scene is so very “Heathers” — a movie that satirized teen angst and high school terrorism in 1989 — and which today would have really seemed exploitative. “Elephant” doesn’t.


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