Elephant (2003 film)
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''Elephant'' is a 2003 American
psychological Psychology is the scientific Science () is a systematic enterprise that Scientific method, builds and organizes knowledge in the form of Testability, testable explanations and predictions about the universe."... modern science is ...
drama film In film A film, also called a movie, motion picture or moving picture, is a work of visual art The visual arts are art forms such as painting Painting is the practice of applying paint Paint is any pigmented liquid, ...
written, directed, and edited by
Gus Van Sant Gus Green Van Sant Jr. (born July 24, 1952) is an American film director, producer, photographer and musician who has earned acclaim as both an independent film, independent and mainstream media, mainstream filmmaker. His films typically deal wi ...
. It takes place in the fictional Watt High School, in the suburbs of
Portland, Oregon Portland (, ) is the list of cities in Oregon, largest and most populous city in the U.S. state of Oregon, and the county seat, seat of Multnomah County, Oregon, Multnomah County. It is a major port in the Willamette Valley region of the Pacif ...

Portland, Oregon
, and chronicles the events surrounding a school shooting, based in part on the 1999
Columbine High School massacre The Columbine High School massacre was a school shooting and improvised explosive device, attempted bombing that occurred on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado, United States. The perpetrators, twelfth grade (s ...
. The film begins a short time before the shooting occurs, following the lives of several characters both in and out of school, who are unaware of what is about to unfold. The film stars mostly new or non-professional actors, including
John Robinson John Robinson may refer to: Academics *John Thomas Romney Robinson (1792–1882), Irish astronomer and physicist *John J. Robinson (1918–1996), historian and author of ''Born in Blood'' *John Talbot Robinson (1923–2001), paleontologist *John ...
, Alex Frost, and Eric Deulen. ''Elephant'' is the second film in Van Sant's " Death Trilogy"—the first is ''
Gerry Gerry is both a surname and a masculine or feminine given name. As a given name, it is often a short form (hypocorism A hypocorism ( or ; from Ancient Greek: (), from (), 'to call by pet names') or pet name is a name used to show affection ...
'' (2002) and the third ''
Last Days The end time (also called end times, end of time, end of days, last days, final days, doomsday, or eschaton) is a future described variously in the eschatology, eschatologies of several world religions (both Abrahamic religions, Abrahamic and n ...
'' (2005)—all three of which are based on actual events. ''Elephant'' was generally praised by critics and received the
Palme d'Or The Palme d'Or (; en, Golden Palm) is the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival The Cannes Festival (; french: link=no, Festival de Cannes), until 2003 called the International Film Festival (') and known in English as the Ca ...

Palme d'Or
at the
2003 Cannes Film Festival The 56th Cannes Film Festival The Cannes Festival (; french: link=no, Festival de Cannes), until 2003 called the International Film Festival (') and known in English as the Cannes Film Festival, is an annual film festival A film festival i ...
, in which
Patrice Chéreau Patrice Chéreau (; 2 November 1944 – 7 October 2013) was a French opera and theatre director, filmmaker, actor and producer. In France he is best known for his work for the theatre, internationally for his films '' La Reine Margot'' and ...
was the head of the jury. The film was controversial for its subject matter and allegations of influence on the
Red Lake shootings Red is the color at the long wavelength end of the visible spectrum of light, next to Orange (colour), orange and opposite Violet (color), violet. It has a dominant wavelength of approximately 625–740 nanometres. It is a primary color in the ...
.


Plot

At the start of the film, John McFarland is being driven to school by his father, who is driving erratically down the road. Noticing the damage done to the car, John realizes that his father is drunk and makes him move to the passenger seat so he can drive. When John arrives at school late, he is reprimanded by the principal, Mr. Luce. The majority of the film is spent following several high school students going about their daily lives just before a school shooting. In addition to John, who struggles with controlling his alcoholic father, photography student Elias builds a portfolio of other students. Outcast Michelle struggles with her body issues and assists in the library. Bulimics Nicole, Brittany, and Jordan gripe about their parents and squabble while popular athlete and lifeguard Nathan meets with his girlfriend, Carrie. Acadia, a close friend of John's, attends a Gay-Straight Alliance meeting. Unknown to anyone, two other students, Alex and Eric, are preparing to carry out a bomb/shooting attack on their school. Flashbacks throughout the film show them preparing for the massacre by ordering weapons online and formulating an attack plan. The two have a brief sexual encounter in the shower after they both admit that they've never kissed anyone before. Their motives for the shooting appear vague; the film provides evidence suggesting bullying, neglect, violent video games, and Nazism. On the day of the shooting, the pair make their way to school in Alex's car. Alex is armed with a rifle while Eric has a semi-automatic pistol. As they enter the school, they encounter John, and Alex tells him to leave. Realizing what is about to happen, John tries to warn students and teachers outside not to go into the school, but few people listen. He then notices his dad is missing after they arrived earlier and goes looking for him. Alex and Eric plant propane bombs in the cafeteria, hoping to blow it up and shoot people as they try to escape the fire. When the bombs fail, they decide to start shooting indiscriminately. The pair head into the library, where Elias photographs them right before they open fire on students. Michelle is killed, while Elias' fate is left unclear. Other students quickly realize that the gunfire is real and begin to panic, and teachers begin evacuating students. Alex and Eric split up to opposing ends of the school to continue their shooting. Alex enters the girls' bathroom where he surprises Jordan, Nicole, and Brittany, presumably shooting all three. A student attending the Gay-Straight Alliance meeting enters the hallway investigating the gunfire and is shot dead. The alliance members evacuate through a window save for Acadia, who freezes at the sight of her dead classmate. Benny, an African-American student athlete, finds her and helps her out the window before deciding to find and confront the shooters. Outside the school, John finds his now sobered-up father, who tries to comfort his son as the shooting continues. While helping students escape, Mr. Luce is cornered and threatened by Eric, prompting Mr. Luce to try and reason with him. Benny walks up behind Eric, but Eric abruptly turns around and shoots Benny dead. Eric tells Mr. Luce not to treat kids like him and Alex poorly. He then lets Mr. Luce go, only to gun him down seconds later. Alex enters the cafeteria, which is strewn with overturned chairs, backpacks, several dead bodies, and numerous abandoned half-eaten lunches, and sits down. Alex picks up a cup from an abandoned lunch and casually drinks from it. Eric meets up with him, and they have a brief conversation about who they've shot, which ends when Alex shoots Eric mid-sentence. Alex leaves the cafeteria, showing no emotion over killing Eric, and discovers Carrie and Nathan hiding in a freezer. He tauntingly recites "
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe"—which can be spelled a number of ways—is a children's counting-out rhyme, used to select a person in games such as tag, or for selecting various other things. It is one of a large group of similar rhymes in which the ...
" to them to decide whom he should kill first. The film then cuts to credits leaving the ending ambiguous.


Cast

* Alex Frost as Alex, the more intelligent of the two killers, implied to be the one in charge. He is an accomplished but frustrated
pianist A pianist ( , ) is an individual musician who plays the piano The piano is an acoustic Acoustic may refer to: Music Albums * Acoustic (Bayside EP), ''Acoustic'' (Bayside EP) * Acoustic (Britt Nicole EP), ''Acoustic'' (Britt Nicole EP) ...

pianist
and sketch artist. He and Eric kiss before the massacre, both citing the fact that they had never been kissed. * Eric Deulen as Eric, a
slacker A slacker is someone who habitually avoids work or lacks work ethic Work ethic is a belief that work and diligence Diligence—carefulness and persistent effort or work—is one of the seven heavenly virtues. It is indicative of a work ...

slacker
, Alex's friend, and the other killer. He is less intelligent than Alex, and Alex is obviously aware of this. He is shot in the chest by Alex near the end of the film, while talking about whom he had killed earlier. *
John Robinson John Robinson may refer to: Academics *John Thomas Romney Robinson (1792–1882), Irish astronomer and physicist *John J. Robinson (1918–1996), historian and author of ''Born in Blood'' *John Talbot Robinson (1923–2001), paleontologist *John ...
as John McFarland, Alex's friend who has trouble at school while managing his
alcoholic Alcoholism is, broadly, any drinking of alcohol In chemistry, alcohol is an organic compound that carries at least one hydroxyl functional group (−OH) bound to a Saturated and unsaturated compounds, saturated carbon atom. The term ...
father. Alex warns him to stay away from the massacre. *
Timothy Bottoms Timothy James Bottoms (born August 30, 1951) is an American actor and film producer. He is best known for playing the lead in ''Johnny Got His Gun (film), Johnny Got His Gun'' (1971); Sonny Crawford in ''The Last Picture Show'' (1971), where he ...
as Mr. McFarland, John's alcoholic father. *
Matt Malloy Matt Malloy (born January 12, 1963) is an American actor and producer who has appeared extensively on television, film, and radio. Malloy's break-out performance was his co-starring role alongside Aaron Eckhart and Stacy Edwards in the 1997 black ...
as Mr. Luce, the
principal Principal may refer to: Title or rank * Principal (academia) The principal is the chief executive and the Provost (education), chief academic officer of a university or college in certain parts of the Commonwealth of Nations, Commonwealth. Ca ...
of the school. Cornered by Eric, who briefly spares him, he is presumed dead after being shot several times. *
Elias McConnell Elias Comfort McConnell (born 1985) is an American former actor and model from Portland, Oregon, known for appearing in the 2003 film, ''Elephant Elephants are the largest existing land animals. Three species In biology, a species is th ...
as Elias, a
photography Photography is the art Art is a diverse range of (products of) human activities Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are the most populous and widespread species of primates, characterized by bipedality, opposable thumbs, hairlessness, and int ...

photography
student building his portfolio with portraits of other students. * Nathan Tyson and Carrie Finklea as Nathan and Carrie, a popular
lifeguard A lifeguard is a rescuer who supervises the safety and rescue of swimmers, surfers, and other water sports participants such as in a swimming pool, water park, beach, spa, river and lake. Lifeguards are trained in swimming and CPR/AED first ai ...
/
football player A football player or footballer is a sportsperson An athlete (also sportsman or sportswoman) is a person who competes in one or more sport Sport pertains to any form of competitive Competition is a rivalry A rivalry is the s ...

football player
and his girlfriend. Alex taunts them with
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe"—which can be spelled a number of ways—is a children's counting-out rhyme, used to select a person in games such as tag, or for selecting various other things. It is one of a large group of similar rhymes in which the ...
. * Kristen Hicks as Michelle, a
nerdy A nerd is a person seen as overly intellectual An intellectual is a person who engages in critical thinking Critical thinking is the analysis of facts to form a judgment. The subject is complex; several different Critical thinking#Def ...
girl ashamed of her body. The film follows her through the locker room and into the
library A library is a collection of materials, books or media that are easily accessible for use and not just for display purposes. It is responsible for housing updated information in order to meet the user's needs on a daily basis. A library provi ...

library
where she assists. She is the first to die during the massacre. * Brittany Mountain, Jordan Taylor, and Nicole George as Brittany, Jordan, and Nicole, three
bulimic Bulimia nervosa, also known as simply bulimia, is an eating disorder characterized by binge eating followed by purging. Binge eating refers to eating a large amount of food in a short amount of time. Purging refers to the attempts to get rid of t ...
girls who talk incessantly, gripe about parents, and squabble with one another. * Bennie Dixon as Benny, an athletic student who helps Acadia escape out of a window before approaching Eric. He is shot and presumed dead. * Alicia Miles as Acadia, a close friend of John and a member of the Gay-Straight Alliance. She is assumed to have a
panic disorder Panic disorder is a mental Mental may refer to: * of or relating to the mind Films * Mental (2012 film), ''Mental'' (2012 film), an Australian comedy-drama * Mental (2016 film), ''Mental'' (2016 film), a Bangladeshi romantic-action movie * ''M ...
which causes her to freeze and break down in times of fear or stress. During the shooting, Benny discovers her standing still in a classroom and helps her escape from the school and the shooters.


Production

The film began as a
documentary
documentary
that Van Sant had intended to make about the
Columbine High School massacre The Columbine High School massacre was a school shooting and improvised explosive device, attempted bombing that occurred on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado, United States. The perpetrators, twelfth grade (s ...
; eventually, the idea of a factual account was dropped. ''Elephant'' was filmed in Van Sant's hometown,
Portland, Oregon Portland (, ) is the list of cities in Oregon, largest and most populous city in the U.S. state of Oregon, and the county seat, seat of Multnomah County, Oregon, Multnomah County. It is a major port in the Willamette Valley region of the Pacif ...

Portland, Oregon
, in late 2002, on the former campus of Whitaker Middle School (previously Adams High School). Whitaker was closed by the Portland Public Schools in 2001 due to structural problems and safety concerns with the school building. The Whitaker/Adams building, completed in 1969, was torn down in 2007. There was no initial script before the filming started. The script was "written" to its final form during shooting, with cast members
improvising Improvisation is the activity of making or doing something not planned beforehand, using whatever can be found. Improvisation in the performing arts is a very spontaneous performance without specific or scripted preparation. The skills of imp ...
freely and collaborating in the direction of scenes. It was shot over 20 days. JT LeRoy (a pen name for author
Laura Albert Laura Victoria Albert (born November 2, 1965) is an American author who invented the literary persona JT LeRoy, whom Albert described as an "avatar." She published various works of purportedly autobiographical fiction under the LeRoy name befor ...
) is credited as an associate producer for the film. The title ''Elephant'' is a tribute to the 1989
BBC The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is a public service broadcaster, headquartered at Broadcasting House in Westminster, London. It is the world's oldest national broadcaster, and the largest broadcasting, broadcaster in the world by ...

BBC
short film A short film is any motion picture A film, also called a movie, motion picture or moving picture, is a work of visual art used to simulate experiences that communicate ideas, stories, perceptions, feelings, beauty, or atmosphere through ...
of the same name, directed by
Alan Clarke Alan John Clarke (28 October 1935 – 24 July 1990) was an English television and film director, producer and writer. Life and career Clarke was born in Wallasey, Wirral, England. Most of Clarke's output was for television rather than cinema, ...
. Van Sant originally believed Clarke's title referred to the parable of the
blind men and an elephant The parable A parable is a succinct, Didacticism, didactic story, in prose or Verse (poetry), verse, that illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles. It differs from a fable in that fables employ animals, plants, inanimate obj ...
, in which several blind men try to describe an elephant, and each draws different conclusions based on which body part he touched, and Van Sant's film uses that interpretation, as the same general timeline is shown multiple times from multiple viewpoints. Later, Van Sant discovered Clarke's film referred to the phrase "
elephant in the room The expression “the elephant in the room” (or "the elephant in the living room") is a metaphorical idiom in English language, English for an important or enormous topic, question, or controversial issue that is obvious or that everyone knows a ...

elephant in the room
" (the collective denial of some obvious problem). Also,
Gus Van Sant Gus Green Van Sant Jr. (born July 24, 1952) is an American film director, producer, photographer and musician who has earned acclaim as both an independent film, independent and mainstream media, mainstream filmmaker. His films typically deal wi ...
named
Chantal Akerman Chantal Anne Akerman (; 6 June 19505 October 2015) was a Belgian film director A film director controls a film A film, also called a movie, motion picture or moving picture, is a work of visual art The visual arts are art for ...
's film ''
Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles ''Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles'', more commonly known simply as ''Jeanne Dielman'' (, "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels") is a 1975 arthouse film by Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman. It is a slice of life p ...
'' (1975) an inspiration. Clarke's film ''Elephant'' reflects on
sectarian violence Sectarian violence and/or sectarian strife is a form of communal violence which is inspired by sectarianism, that is, between different sects of one particular mode of an ideology or religion within a nation/community. Religious segregation often ...
in
Northern Ireland Northern Ireland ( ga, Tuaisceart Éireann ; sco, label=Ulster-ScotsUlster Scots, also known as Scotch-Irish, may refer to: * Ulster Scots people The Ulster Scots (Ulster-Scots The Ulster Scots (Ulster Scots dialects, Ulster- ...

Northern Ireland
. Van Sant's
minimalist In visual arts The visual arts are art forms such as painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture Sculpture is the branch of the visual arts that operates in three dimensions. It is one of the plastic arts. Durable sculptural processe ...
style and use of tracking shots mirrors Clarke's film. A drawing of an elephant as well as an image of an elephant on a bed throw can be seen in Alex's room while he plays the piano.


Release

The film competed at the
Cannes Film Festival The Cannes Festival (; french: link=no, Festival de Cannes), until 2003 called the International Film Festival (') and known in English as the Cannes Film Festival, is an annual film festival A film festival is an organized, extended presen ...
in May 2003. Van Sant claimed audiences in attendance at Cannes argued over its quality, leading to altercations. ''Elephant'' premiered in
North America North America is a continent A continent is any of several large landmasses. Generally identified by convention (norm), convention rather than any strict criteria, up to seven geographical regions are commonly regarded as continen ...

North America
at a benefit for the Outside In youth shelter at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, in
Portland, Oregon Portland (, ) is the list of cities in Oregon, largest and most populous city in the U.S. state of Oregon, and the county seat, seat of Multnomah County, Oregon, Multnomah County. It is a major port in the Willamette Valley region of the Pacif ...

Portland, Oregon
, on Saturday, October 4, 2003, with several teenagers who appeared in the film in attendance. The film was released for incremental distribution by
HBO Home Box Office (HBO) is an American pay television Pay television, also known as subscription television, premium television or, when referring to an individual service, a premium channel, refers to subscription The subscription busin ...
in 38 theaters in the United States, beginning October 24, 2003. The film is notable for being the launch title for the Italian channel
Rai 4 Rai 4 (pronounced ''Rai Quattro'') is an Italy, Italian free-to-air television channel owned by the public broadcaster RAI. Launched on 14 July 2008 with the film ''Elephant (2003 film), Elephant'', Rai 4 targets youths with films, TV series and ...
.


Reception


Critical response

''Elephant'' received mainly positive reviews from critics and has a score of 73% on
Rotten Tomatoes Rotten Tomatoes is an American review-aggregation website for film and television. The company was launched in August 1998 by three undergraduate students at the University of California, Berkeley The University of California, Berkeley ...

Rotten Tomatoes
based on 160 reviews with an average rating of 7.07/10. The critical consensus states "The movie's spare and unconventional style will divide viewers." The film also has a score of 70 out of 100 on
Metacritic Metacritic is a website that aggregates reviews A review aggregator is a system that collects reviews of products and services (such as films, books, video games, software, hardware, and cars). This system stores the reviews and uses them for ...

Metacritic
based on 37 critics indicating "generally favourable reviews".
Roger Ebert Roger Joseph Ebert (; June 18, 1942 – April 4, 2013) was an American Film criticism, film critic, film historian, journalist, screenwriter, and author. He was a film critic for the ''Chicago Sun-Times'' from 1967 until his death in 2013. In ...

Roger Ebert
praised the film and gave it 4 out of 4 stars writing "Gus Van Sant's ''Elephant'' is a violent movie in the sense that many innocent people are shot dead. But it isn't violent in the way it presents those deaths. There is no pumped-up style, no lingering, no release, no climax. Just implacable, poker-faced, flat, uninflected death. Truffaut said it was hard to make an anti-war film because war was exciting even if you were against it. Van Sant has made an anti-violence film by draining violence of energy, purpose, glamor, reward and social context. It just happens. I doubt that ''Elephant'' will ever inspire anyone to copy what they see on the screen. Much more than the insipid message movies shown in social studies classes, it might inspire useful discussion and soul-searching among high school students."


Accolades


Red Lake shootings controversy

The
Red Lake shootings Red is the color at the long wavelength end of the visible spectrum of light, next to Orange (colour), orange and opposite Violet (color), violet. It has a dominant wavelength of approximately 625–740 nanometres. It is a primary color in the ...
that occurred in 2005 were briefly blamed on the film, as it was viewed by gunman
Jeff Weise Jeffrey James Weise (August 8, 1988 – March 21, 2005) was an American student at Red Lake Senior High School in Red Lake, Minnesota who committed the Red Lake shootings on March 21, 2005. He killed his grandfather and his grandfather's ...
17 days prior to the event. A friend of Weise said that he brought the film over to a friend's house and skipped ahead to parts that showed two students planning and carrying out a school massacre. Although they talked about the film afterwards, Weise said and did nothing to make anyone suspect what he was planning.. ''KTVO-TV''.


See also

* Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the students behind the
Columbine High School massacre The Columbine High School massacre was a school shooting and improvised explosive device, attempted bombing that occurred on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado, United States. The perpetrators, twelfth grade (s ...
* ''Bowling for Columbine'', a documentary about gun violence in America with emphasis on the Columbine massacre * ''Duck! The Carbine High Massacre'', a film made in 1999 inspired by the Columbine High School massacre * ''Heart of America (film), Heart of America'', yet another film revolving around a fictionalized school massacre * ''Zero Day (2003 film), Zero Day'', another film inspired by the Columbine High School massacre made in 2003 * ''The Only Way (2004 film), The Only Way'', a 2004 independent film inspired by the Columbine High School massacre * ''2:37'', a 2006 film set in Australia that follows the same themes and style * ''Run Hide Fight'', a 2020 film follows a high school sieged by a quartet of school shooters.


References


External links

* * * * {{DEFAULTSORT:Elephant (Film) 2003 films 2003 crime drama films 2003 LGBT-related films 2000s teen drama films American crime drama films American films American high school films American teen drama films American teen LGBT-related films 2000s English-language films Films about bullying Films about murderers Films about school violence Films about virginity Films directed by Gus Van Sant Films set in Oregon Films shot in Portland, Oregon HBO Films films LGBT-related drama films Films about mass murder American nonlinear narrative films Palme d'Or winners Films with screenplays by Gus Van Sant Works about the Columbine High School massacre Hyperlink films Features based on short films