Elephant is an indie film based loosely on the 1999 Columbine school shootings, so, you know...cheery.
What's interesting about this film is that it was made in 2003, back when the idea of a high school student bringing a gun to school and opening fire on his classmates was still novel rather than a biweekly occurrence. The story goes that Gus Van Sant picked the title of this film as an homage to a 1989 film of the same name, which is supposed to be a reference to the parable of blind men describing an elephant and each coming up with something different based on their perspective.
This applies to the nature of school shootings, where people desperately try to come up with a reason why someone would bring a gun to school. They end up blaming everything from video games to rock music to antidepressants to goth subculture, coming up with basically nothing. It's also reflected in the narrative style of the film, where scenes are repeated from different student perspectives.
Arguably more poignantly, the film's title also refers to the idiom of the elephant in the room. A massive issue that everyone is acutely aware of, but refuses to talk about. Is there really a better expression to refer to gun control in America?
Elephant follows a very loose narrative structure, exploring the lives of several high school students on an unremarkable day that quickly morphs into a tragedy. The style is purposefully cheap-looking and unembellished -- Gus Van Sant is aiming for a documentary-like sense of realism that makes the viewer feel as though they're watching student-shot footage of real life events.
All of the students' conversations are casual and feel unscripted (with good reason -- most of them were), while they discuss unimportant topics and exchange trivialities, completely unaware of the events that are about to transpire. In every way possible, this feels like an average, even boring, day.
In a weird way, the banality of the scenes are driven home (to me at least) by the fact that this reminds me very much of my own high school. I would have been a freshman or sophomore at the time that this film came out, and the hairstyles, fashion, and dialogue all make this feel very real and unscripted.
Although things are kept light and insubstantial, there is a pervasive sense of foreboding that permeates the entire film. There are a number of long scenes (some might argue too many) that show students walking down seemingly endless hallways, driving us and them helplessly towards the film's inevitable, ghastly conclusion.
Once the action starts and the two killers descend upon the school, the handheld cameras take on a new purpose -- what we're watching begins to look like news footage, and we're stuck watching highschoolers get mowed down, unable to look away.
There's an argument to be made that some of the urgency and fire that the piece had coming out just a few short years after Columbine has faded away, leaving a self-indulgently artistic film light on substance. While I do think that this film meant more in 2003 than it does now, Elephant still holds up at its most basic level, as a purposefully hyper-realistic look at a day gone horribly wrong.