This is the second movie in Gus Van Sant's Death Trilogy - the first is Gerry and the third Last Days; all three are based on actual events. Elephant takes place in the fictional Watt High School, in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, and chronicles the events surrounding a fictional school shooting, based in part on the 1999 Columbine High School Massacre although the end of the film stresses the "similarities to actual events are purely coincidental" disclaimer.
The film was generally acclaimed by critics, and received the prestigious 2003 Palme d'Or at the Festival de Cannes. As the first high-profile movie to address high school shootings since Columbine, the film was controversial for its subject matter and possible influence on teenaged copy-cats. Elephant received an R rating from the MPAA for "disturbing violent content, language, brief sexuality and brief drug use, all involving teens".
The camera follows other students as they walk down the hallways, talk to friends and go to class. Many characters are shown in long tracking shots that do not turn away. Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen) are shown being constantly picked on at school by the jocks, several of whom throw spitballs at Alex during science class. Later, Alex and Eric are shown at home ordering weapons from a website and receiving an assault rifle in the mail. The two are later shown formulating an attack plan. The next day, Alex and Eric kiss in the shower (for the stated reason that they have never kissed someone) before making their way to the school in silence.
After arriving at school, Alex and Eric encounter John outside and warn him to run away. Realizing what is about to happen, John attempts to warn others not to enter the school, to little effect. The two boys then enter the school and after their plans to blow up parts of the school with propane bombs fail, begin shooting indiscriminately. Elias (Elias McConnell) photographs them entering the library where they open fire, shooting several students, including Michelle and presumably Elias. Realizing that the gunfire is real, students now begin to panic, while teachers attempt to quickly evacuate everyone. The two boys separate, continuing their killing spree. Alex enters the bathroom where Brittany, Jordan, and Nicole are, presumably shooting all three. Benny approaches Eric but is shot with Eric's TEC-9. Mr. Luce pleads to Eric to spare his life, and Eric initially agrees to let him go, but guns him down seconds later.
Alex enters the cafeteria and sits down (where he has apparently already opened fire, as a body can be seen in the background). Eric meets up with him, and they have a brief conversation, after which Alex shoots Eric in mid-sentence. Alex then leaves the cafeteria, showing no emotion over shooting Eric, and discovers Carrie and Nathan in a freezer. He tauntingly recites Eeny, meeny, miny, moe to them to decide whom he should kill first. The film then ends without resolution; the last shot of the film is similar to the opening, a cloudy blue sky.
Elephant was filmed in Van Sant's hometown of Portland, Oregon in late 2002, on the former campus of Whitaker Middle School (previously Adams High School.) Whitaker was closed by the Portland Public Schools in 2001, due to structural problems and safety concerns with the school building. The Whitaker/Adams building, completed in 1969, was torn down in 2007.
The script was "written" to its final form during shooting, with cast members improvising freely and collaborating in the direction of scenes. The result is described by reviewers as "poetic" and "dreamlike", and by Van Sant himself as a rejection of conventional narrative, building on what he learned from work on Gerry.
A drawing of an elephant as well as an image of an elephant on a throw on the bed can be seen in Alex's room, while he plays the piano.
The music of Beethoven, which was used in the film, is transposed up almost a full semitone, i.e. Moonlight Sonata mv.1 was played in Dm, and Fur Elise was played in A#m.
The 2005 Red Lake High School Massacre was briefly blamed on the film Elephant as it was watched by Jeffrey Weise 17 days prior to the shooting. A friend of Weise said that he brought the movie over to a friend's house and skipped ahead to parts that showed two students planning and carrying out a school massacre, although they talked about the film afterwards Jeffrey Weise said and did nothing to make anyone suspect what he was planning.
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