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Film / Elephant

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Elephant is a Gus Van Sant film made in 2003.

It tells the story of a high school shooting similar to the Columbine High School massacre. It constructs the story of a single day from the viewpoint of different high school students, 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.

Gus Van Sant based the movie on a short film made by Alan Clarke of the same name that was broadcast on the BBC in 1989. Clarke's film dealt with The Troubles in Northern Ireland and was largely composed of tracking shots following gunmen as they assassinate targets. The title refers both to the old Jain parable of a group of blind men who each touch a different part of an elephant and then disagree on what they are feeling, and the idea of the Elephant in the Living Room (in this case the elephant being Columbine and the true reasons for it).


The film is noted for 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.

This is the second film in Van Sant's Death Trilogy. The first was Gerry and the third was Last Days.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adult Fear: The shooting itself, naturally. This is also inverted as John fears his father might be in the school when the massacre is underway.
  • Alcoholic Parent: John's father.
  • 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.
  • Amateur Cast: Most of the students are played by non-actors or very new actors.
  • 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.
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  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Leitmotif: Beethoven's Fur Elise.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: Michelle and Eric.
  • Kill 'em All: 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.
  • 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. See The Stoic below.
  • 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 camera follows calm, muscular Benny as he helps Acadia and 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.
  • 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.
  • The Un-Reveal: 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.