Gus Van Sant is a filmmaker who tries one's patience. In his splendid Drugstore Cowboy, Van Sant explored drug addiction and its criminal element with nihilistic humor. But then came My Own Private Idaho, his sluggish neo-Shakespearean riff set among teen-age drifters, followed by the overrated To Die For.
In Good Will Hunting, Van Sant went beefcake commercial, and psychiatry saved the day. He parlayed the success of that movie into his pointless, shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. And last year there was Gerry, a deliberate and haunting (if somewhat impenetrable) story of two young men, neither of them named Gerry -- although that's what they call each other -- who get dangerously lost on a desert walkabout.
All of this is germane to Elephant, Van Sant's most difficult, controversial and frustrating movie yet. Shot in his hometown of Portland, Ore., where he still lives, it follows a day in the life of a Typical American High School that ends when two buddies shoot the place up with guns they bought on the Internet.
Movies don't get much more timely than this, although Van Sant certainly doesn't exploit his subject matter: Filmed like a docu-drama, with flares of artistry that you won't even recognize at first, Elephant attempts to steal glimpses and sensations of an inexplicable cultural phenomenon.
Van Sant does that exceptionally for half of his film's lean 80 minutes, introducing us to his characters with a series of casual moments in their lives: John (John Robinson), a sinewy, good-natured kid who forces his drunk dad (Timothy Bottoms) to hand over the keys after they swerve down a tree-lined suburban street; Eli (Elias McConnell), a friendly, lanky photographer who's building his portfolio with shots of his classmates; Nathan and Carrie (Nathan Tyson, Carrie Finklea), the shaggy-haired stud pup and his watchful girlfriend; Acadia (Alicia Miles), a member of the school's gay-straight alliance; Michelle (Kristen Hicks), the lonely girl with frizzy hair and glasses.
Which one of these middle-class nobodies will die when the killing begins? Which ones will turn out to be killers? Van Sant tells us before too long. In the cafeteria, Alex (Alex Frost), cherubically handsome and dark-haired, takes notes on his surroundings and tells an inquisitive girl that it's for "my plan." Later, in his bedroom, he plays Beethoven beautifully on the piano while his friend Eric (Eric Deulen), gangly and bleached blond, plays a shoot-'em-up video game on a laptop and surfs weapons Web sites.
These are the killers: Alex and Eric, one a gifted artist (Alex also draws), the other a hanger-on (he spends more time at Alex's cozy home than his own, which we never see). They plan their assault with impassive precision, deciding where the havoc-wreaking firebombs will go, and who will stalk which hallway when the shooting begins. They want to be especially sure to get the jocks. But while they're up to serious business, Alex ends their final planning session with: "Most importantly, have fun, man."
The first half of Elephant feels tensely authentic and icily detached as Van Sant's camera drifts from teen to teen, sometimes stalking them silently for three or four minutes as they peregrinate about the campus. It's an absorbing dramatic choice by Van Sant, for it allows us to get close to these kids by literally following in their footsteps. He even moves almost invisibly back and forth in time, another testament to his adroit direction and storytelling.
During his drama's climactic passage -- at times cogently realistic, at other times eerily apocalyptic -- we can only assume that Van Sant borrows his more anomalous details from the headlines just as thoroughly as he borrows his scenario. With the shooting about to begin, why would John, whom the killers warn not to enter the building, circumnavigate the school grounds telling people, "Don't go in there," instead of immediately asking for a cell phone and calling the police? Why would Benny (Bennie Dixon), the only black student we see (and only for one short scene), choose to walk the halls coolly during the killing rather than escaping through a window (which he helps a petrified girl to do)? Are these reckless choices by Van Sant, or are they simply two inscrutable vignettes that attempt to document the unknowable?
Van Sant never tries to settle on the deeper causes behind Eric and Alex's carnage. He offers only one canned suggestion, when Eric tells the principal before killing him: "You know there are others like me out there, and they will kill you if you fuck with them like you did with me and Gerry." But Van Sant seems to have written this line to edify (satisfy?) his movie's audience, and by having Eric refer to Alex as "Gerry," he indulges himself even further with an arcane self-reference to his earlier film.
He stumbles again just before the shootings, when the two killers shower together in Alex's home. "I've never even kissed anybody, have you?" says Eric, after he steps inside the small shower stall with Alex. And then the two embrace and kiss at length in what can only be described as a make-out session under a stream of hot water. What could Van Sant have been thinking with this inchoate homoerotic flourish? And if that's what he was thinking -- well, it feels too indulgent just to throw something like that out, unless he anticipates an audience of heady art-film viewers who will make the compassionate connections (now I'm being very generous).
In real life, of course, we do know something about high school killers' lives, so we can at least try to do the math. In Elephant, we know little of any use, so its slice of life inevitably leaves you hungry and salivating. That may be Van Sant's point. It's also a good way to invite viewers to make fools of themselves trying to figure it out. Nor does he explain his title, although Eric's comment to his principal suggests that tormented teens, like elephants, will never forget.
Van Sant scores Elephant with sad Beethoven pieces, like "FÃ¼r Elise" and the "Moonlight" sonata. This is certainly a reference to Kubrick's Clockwork Orange, in which Alex, the leader of a gang of young marauders, worships Ludwig van. In a twist, the pianist/killer in Elephant is also named Alex -- that is, both the character and the actor, because Van Sant hired non-professionals to play these kids and had most of them keep their real first names in the movie.
Did he cast Alex Frost because of his Christian name? Did the Clockwork Orange connection occur to him after casting, and so he chose Beethoven music to underscore it? Or is it all simply a divine artistic coincidence? Sitting in the theater, we don't have the luxury of asking him, nor should we. For this is Gus Van Sant: fascinating, maddening, quirky -- and, as always, just slightly unable to give his art over to itself.