review for Elephant on AllMovie

Elephant (2003)
by Perry Seibert review

In Elephant, Gus Van Sant takes the lessons in minimalism he learned while making Gerry and uses them to achieve socially relevant art. Van Sant utilizes very long takes that often involve slow, intricate, and complicated Steadicam work. The style serves the film's goals, not the filmmakers' egos. The viewer gets the sense that what is transpiring onscreen has not been painstakingly choreographed, but has simply been recorded on the fly. The unknown teenagers cast in all of the roles underscore the verisimilitude. While the film could easily slip into sensationalism and horror clichés, Van Sant keeps everything even-handed. He never wallows in gore and terror, but he still manages to show the attack in such a way that recognizes the horror without emotionally hijacking the viewer. One gets the sense that the director has cried all he can for the victims and now wants to figure out why this happened. Van Sant has said that the title of the film references the classic "elephant in the room" -- the thing affecting everybody that nobody wants to talk about. Van Sant does not appear to take a stand on why his characters commit these terrible acts -- he offers up no answers. But what he does offer, with the help of Harris Savides' observant camerawork, is a documentary-like presentation of two days in a place that experiences a school massacre. Great art often asks questions. With Elephant, Van Sant has created art that provides a reasoned, non-judgmental starting point for an important conversation about our culture.