Movie Review: Elephant

Last night I watched an incredibly harrowing film called Elephant. Although the film came out in 2003 (aka more than a decade ago) it is still very much relevant today, especially in the wake of the recent mass shootings across the U.S. Elephant takes place at a high school in Oregon on a typical day, showing the events leading up to a brutal school shooting on campus. What is interesting about this film is that it is not just from one perspective but from the perspectives of both the survivors and the shooters. There also isn’t much dialogue in the film, so the silences give the film its unsettling quality, and also force the audience to deeply reflect on the meaning of the film. It reminded me of this PSA that Sandy Hook Promise, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about gun violence and the toll it can take on people (in 2012, a gunman named Adam Lanza murdered several children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut). The PSA features several students showing off their back-to-school supplies and using the supplies to protect themselves from an active shooter in the school. At the end there is a chilling scene where a girl is hiding in a bathroom stall and texts her mom “I love you” with her new cell phone before the shooter enters. Honestly I have seen some scary PSAs, but this one seemed to say, “We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired. Our kids shouldn’t have to fear going back to school.”

I wish I could write a more coherent view of this film, but I am honestly still processing it. At the beginning I wasn’t sure how I would like it, but by the end I had to stop and think and reflect, and this is what this film wants you to do. If I gave away a lot of plot summary it would ruin the film, to be honest. All I can say is, it is a moving film even if it doesn’t have a lot of gratuitous violence. The violence is hard to watch towards the end of the film (if you need a warning, it’s the last 15 minutes). I think the fact that Gus Van Sant had the film be from multiple perspectives makes it a scary film. Ironically I can’t watch slasher films like Chucky and Saw, and yet I can sit through harrowing films like this and 12 Years a Slave and not be scathed. It is scary because it happens in real life, and after hearing about the El Paso shooting, the Odessa shooting, and a number of other mass shootings, I had to go to my keyboard and write how I truly felt about this issue. Because it had been an elephant in the room for the longest time, this senseless violence, and it was time for me to speak up about it through my writing.

I had a talk about world peace and non violence in a philosophy group yesterday, and I brought up one scene in the movie that stuck with me for a while. One of the two shooters in the school is threatening to kill one of the teachers and the teacher asks why he decided to do such a thing (aka kill innocent people) and the student told the teacher that he didn’t feel like him or any of his teachers listened to him or supported him in any way. This shows how violence isn’t random; it is caused by a series of events leading up over time to one huge brutal event (aka the violence). At the beginning we see some kids in class throw spitballs at one of the kids who becomes a shooter at the school, and we see this kid go through the cafeteria and plot something on a pad of paper (which we later find out is his plan to blow up and shoot everyone at the school). There is also a scene where the two shooters are at one of their houses, and one is playing a Beethoven piece on piano (which would have been beautiful except for the fact that while the kid was playing Beethoven, the other kid was playing a computer game where he shot various people and plotted their plan to kill everyone at school), and then we see them watching a movie about Hitler and looking for guns online (there was actually a shooting that happened a couple of years after the movie came out and people blamed it on the fact that the shooter watched Elephant. So of course, some people might be prone to watching this movie and imitating what the characters did. But there were probably other factors in the shooting, too, so it probably wasn’t just the fact that they saw this movie and suddenly wanted to kill people. I saw this film because I wanted to contribute to the conversation on non-violence). This film also makes a commentary in a way that most of the shooters who have committed these murders are young white men who feel like no one respects them in society. In the New York Times yesterday, there was an article on the front page that talked about the mass shootings that happened this summer and mentioned that young white men committed most of these shootings. The film avoids coddling the young men, while a lot of real life reports tend to say things like, “This guy was just an innocent kid, really nice, really sweet”, but it still doesn’t forgive the fact that these guys who kill people in these shootings are dealing with an anger that goes much deeper than surface level early childhood memories. Like I said, violence isn’t something random; it builds up over time, and it’s why, during the discussion, I mentioned the scene where the shooter says he didn’t feel listened to, and everyone said they agreed that schools and homes should be places where youth feel like they can communicate honestly with their family and teachers.

Elephant. 2003. 81 minutes. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Rated R for disturbing violent content, language, brief sexuality and drug use – all involving teens.

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