Van Sant shows us some of the encounters two or three times, from different students' points of view, and our attention might wander from this chronicle of ordinariness (one of his inspirations was Frederick Wiseman's fly-on-the-wall documentary High School) were it not for our knowledge of what's to come. In the four years since Columbine, no American can be led into the polished corridors of a high school without feeling the chill of dark possibility.
Van Sant's method here calls for establishing the dull but intimate rhythms of day-to-day life -- these are everybody's children, this is everyone's school -- then interrupting them with an eruption of fury that the director doesn't try to explain. Anyone shopping for insights into the motives of two young gunmen who calmly slaughter their classmates and teachers will need to look elsewhere. The filmmaker is evidently as mystified as the rest of us by the kinks in the killers' brainwaves.
That's the weakness of his film. But in an odd way, it's also Elephant's strength. Van Sant used actual high school students from his hometown of Portland, Oregon, as actors, encouraging them to improvise their dialogue and riff on the fears, joys and concerns in their own lives. What we get is an authentically messy tapestry of adolescence in which the traumas remain open-ended, the conversations unfinished, the destinies invitingly unfulfilled. Every now and then, Savides' wandering camera catches a bank of dark clouds overhead or a distant game of playground football that seems as inexplicable as the atrocity about to unfold. In the common details of high school existence, fate and luck seem more crucial than will or intention. Pointing his weapon at two classmates, one of the dispassionate, seemingly befogged killers begins to chant, "Eeny meeny miney mo," as if randomness itself were his only creed.
This is a deeply disturbing (if not very satisfying) view of what happened at Columbine and in other school shootings. Van Sant seems even less willing to speculate about school violence than Paul F. Ryan, whose recent feature Home Room focused on the emotional effects on two teenage girls of a Columbine-style disaster. Still, Van Sant's remoteness may not be what it seems at first. In his austere meditation on his cast's movements and moods, he vividly creates the sense that incoherent terror shadows all young lives and that we'd best take note of their vulnerability. Offscreen, the director explains his title two ways: Violence is the elephant in the room, so obvious that no one sees it; also, he recalls a Buddhist parable in which a group of blind men examine different parts of the animal -- ear, leg, trunk -- after which each man is convinced he knows the nature of the elephant from the part he touched. In other words, don't jump to conclusions. Van Sant certainly doesn't.
Elephant is not an agile film, and some viewers will be irked by its inconclusiveness. Its spacious concerns may not answer burning questions about American life, but it amplifies some of them.