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TOP 100 MOVIES in 2003!
An ordinary day at an American high school is shattered when two students begin shooting classmates and teachers.
Winner of the Palme D’Or at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival
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Utter the word “Columbine” and one immediately draws images of April 20th, 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold arrived at Columbine High School armed with firearms and explosives and opened fire on fellow students and teachers. Their actions killed 12 and injured 24 before they turned their guns on themselves. It also sent a shockwave through American society, raising questions about gun control and a culture of violence among the young. Four years later celebrated writer/director Gus Van Sant used the massacre as the inspiration for Elephant, a film that portrays a shooting at a fictional high school through the eyes of several different students.
Van Sant was not the first person to use the events at Columbine as the basis for a film (that “honour” goes to Duck! The Carbine High Massacre, a black comedy released one year after the shooting and whose creators were arrested for carrying firearms onto a school campus.) However, his film is a thoughtful examination of a moment that will live in infamy. It doesn’t condemn or condone the actions of the killers, nor does it seek any answers for their seemingly inexplicable violent rampage, but instead draws the viewer back into the confusion and chaos of that day.
The shooting itself is perfectly pitched; with the exception of John, who meets the shooters outside and is warned not to enter the school, all of the characters we have previously become attached to are fair game. Death comes swiftly and terribly; viewers are given very little time to digest the loss of one life before another is snuffed out. Van Sant captures the all-consuming confusion created by such an event, the slow realisation that something awful is happening and that time is growing increasingly short. The scenes in the latter half of the film are made truly shocking by the documentary style and long tracking shots; the viewer is not allowed to escape to the relative safety of a new shot, a different character far away from the chaos. We are forced to sit and watch everything that unfolds in unflinching, depressing clarity. Nor are we given closure, as the film ends before the very last gunshot. Perhaps the director is saying that an event like a school shooting, an act of grievous violence in an institution that is supposed to be safe, leaves far too many unanswered questions for there to ever be real understanding of the event.
Elephant was awarded the Palme D’Or and Gus Van Sant the prize for Best Director at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. Though the subject was controversial, the film was well-received by critics and it can be argued that it is the best of Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy.” It deals with an uncomfortable subject with a level of sympathy that is seldom found in modern cinema, never forcing an agenda on the viewer but instead offering itself for interpretation. Quiet, poised and bearing all the hallmarks of a confident, mature director, it is a film of startling simplicity and beauty, a work of art born from terrible tragedy.