Van Sant based the movie on a 1989 BBC short film of the same name made by Alan Clarke. Clarke's film dealt with The Troubles in Northern Ireland and was largely composed of cold, observational tracking shots following gunmen as they assassinate targets.
The title refers both to how Van Sant interpreted the short's name (the old Jain parable of a group of several blind men trying to describe an elephant and drawing different conclusions based on which body part each touched) and what Clarke originally intended (the idea of the Elephant in the Living Room, in this case being Columbine).
The structure of the film more closely resembles Van Sant's vision, as the story of a single day is shown from the viewpoint of different high school students (read: blind men), including the two shooters themselves. While many possible explanations are offered for the actions of the shooters (violent video games, neo-Nazism, bullying, etc), the film deliberately does not make their motives clear.
Influenced by the minimalist realism of Clarke's short, the film is noted for its use of long tracking shots, extended sequences with little or no dialogue and a cast comprising mostly of non-actors, giving it a disconnected and ethereal quality.
The film competed in the 2003 Cannes Film Festival and won both the Best Director award for Van Sant and the Palme d'Or.
This film provides examples of:
- Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: Inverted. The majority of the movie is made up of tracking shots of different students during a normal school day, with only the last twenty minutes or so devoted to the shooting itself.
- Adults Are Useless: Teachers and staff fail to spot or intervene when Alex and Eric are bullied, and the parents of the gunmen never suspect their children's plans.
- Alcoholic Parent: John's father.
- Ambiguously Gay: Alex and Eric shower together and make out, but whether this is out of pragmatic curiosity, or attraction, or something else is ambiguous. One says that they've never even kissed anyone, and they kiss for a few minutes.
- Anyone Can Die: Out of all the characters introduced, John seems to be one of only two that survives considering he happened to be outside when he saw Alex and Eric enter, and tried to warn others to not go inside. The other is Acadia, who is almost killed because she has a panic attack when the shooting starts, only to be led outside by Benny. Alex's fate is left ambiguous after the movie as well.
- Ax-Crazy: Both Alex and Eric qualify when they finally go postal. However, Alex manages to top Eric in the sheer sadistic cruelty he exhibits, to the point where he randomly murders his accomplice before viciously toying with two students as to which of them hell kill first.
- As Long as There is Evil: Discussed. Eric decides to let the principal live, and lectures to him that he should take great care not to neglect the kids of the next generations, because if he does, there will be others like him and Alex, and they might not be as merciful.
- Bang, Bang, BANG: Notably averted. The guns in the climactic massacre sound way more realistic than in most Hollywood movies, to the point where one character mistakes gunfire in the hallway for a firecracker.
- Big Bad Duumvirate: Alex and Eric are the two kids who shoot up their school.
- Big Damn Heroes: Subverted. The film very consciously sets up Benny as a potential hero as he goes looking for the killers, only for him to turn a corner and get swiftly killed.
- Black Dude Dies First: Inverted; Benny is one of the last people that we see killed.
- Bookends: The film begins and ends with a shot of clouds in the sky.
- Camera Fiend: Elias. He's characterized by his love for photography, but there's one really heinous moment that he tries to use his camera: when he snaps a picture of Alex and Eric as they enter the library.
- Dark Is Evil: Alex wears full black during the shooting, while Eric wears somewhat dark camouflage.
- Developing Doomed Characters: Justified and deliberate; the entire premise of the film is relating to the characters before their abrupt demise.
- Dissonant Serenity: Alex takes the time to calmly sit down and take a sip of water in the middle of the shooting, and once Eric finds him his only response is to joke about how it's probably tainted with an STD. This moment aside the both of them act far too calm for comfort while actively shooting their fellow teens.
- Downer Ending: As the film is based on the Columbine massacre, this is a Foregone Conclusion.
- Dramatic Gun Cock: Alex cocks his shotgun upon entering the library, pausing for a moment before opening fire.
- Freudian Excuse: The shooters were bullied pretty badly in school, and Eric implied that the teachers did nothing about this.
- Girl Posse: Brittany, Jordan, and Nicole make up one of these.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Downplayed with Benny. He isn't shown Taking the Bullet for Acadia, but he does lead her outside to safety while he walks through the school looking for the shooters, ending with him being killed by Eric.
- Hidden Depths: There's one scene where we see Alex playing piano quite well.
- Huddle Shot: A variant is done with Alex and Eric as they go through their strategy.
- Idiot Ball:
- The delivery man had to have been aware he was delivering an automatic rifle, and he left it in the hands of two teenage boys.
- Elias photographs the two shooters as they enter the library, instead of hiding or running away.
- John sees Alex and Eric enter the school dressed in combat attire and carrying big black duffel bags, and what's more they tell him "some heavy shit's about to go down" when he asks them what's up. Instead of calling the police, he runs around telling random bystanders not to enter the school without giving a reason, causing almost everyone to shrug his warnings off until the shooting is well underway.
- In the Back: The teacher gets it in the back from Eric.
- Jerkass: The principal of the school gives John detention for being late even though the only reason he was late was because his alcoholic father was in no condition to drive him. Furthermore, if Eric is to be believed, he did nothing to stop the school's bullying problem and may have taken part in it as well. This is downplayed though, because during the shooting he directs several students to safety and tries to talk Eric down when confronted.
- Killed Mid-Sentence: Michelle and Eric.
- Leitmotif: Beethoven's Fur Elise.
- Murder Simulators: The shooters are seen playing one of these. Namely, a game based on a movie where you shoot clones of Matt Damon and Casey Affleck as they walk in the Utah salt flats.
- No Ending: The end of the film shows Alex playing 'eeny meeny miney mo' with Nathan and Carrie to choose who to shoot as the camera pulls away.
- Once More, with Clarity!: Lots of scenes are repeated but from the perspectives of different characters, showing them before and after certain exchanges.
- The Oner: The film features a lot of long takes and tracking shots through the halls that are essential to Van Sant's films.
- Pac-Man Fever: The video game portrayed in the film seem to fit this trope.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Eric lectures the principal about how he did nothing to prevent the bullying he and Alex went through and instead ignored their problems.
- Ripped from the Headlines: The movie is based largely off of the Columbine massacre.
- Round Table Shot: In the scene with the gay-straight alliance, which is held in a discussion circle, the camera is centered in the middle and spins around to capture the different students and teachers reactions/contributions to the conversation.
- "Shaggy Dog" Story: Benny's part. He gets focus by having a chapter named after him, but his story amounts to nothing. After he helps Acadia, he goes looking for the shooters, setting up viewer expectations that he can thwart them, only for him to round the corner and be shot point blank by Eric with no fuss or fanfare.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: Alex plays Fur Elise on piano as we see Eric playing a violent video game, and the song is then played again over the credits after the horrific act is shown.
- The Stoic:
- The calm, muscular Benny.
- Alex is remarkably flat in his emotional responses, showing no emotion at all after killing his partner in crime.
- Suddenly Shouting: When Eric finds the principal, he first calmly greets him. After the principal cowers in fear and pleads with him to put the gun down, Eric fires into the ceiling and screams "I ain't putting SHIT down!"
- Team Killer: Alex shoots Eric in cold blood.
- Teens Are Monsters: Played straight with the bullying of Alex, and the actual shootings, but also shown to be inaccurate regarding the majority of students, the purpose of this movie being to try to go deeper than clichés.
- This Is for Emphasis, Bitch!: Eric calls the principal a bitch after shooting him.
- Those Wacky Nazis: Alex and Eric are shown watching a documentary on the Nazis at one point. It's left ambiguous as to whether or not this was one of their inspirations for the shooting.
- Too Dumb to Live: What was Benny thinking when he walked up to Eric in the corridor? Perhaps he was a Death Seeker.
- The Unreveal: Although many reasons are given (bullying, media, political affiliations), we ultimately don't know what Alex and Eric's motivations are.
- Violence Is Disturbing: Since the film is comprised of many long cuts with minimal editing, we see the carnage as if we were really there.
- Where's the Kaboom?: As part of the massacre, Alex and Eric plan to blow up parts of the school to cause maximum chaos. The bombs fail, so they settle for shooting random people.
- You Will Be Spared: Subverted. Eric decides to spare the life of the principal as he has him at gunpoint, only to kill him as he runs away.