is a 2003 crime
written and directed by Gus Van Sant
. It is set on the day of a massive school shooting
. The film takes place a short time before the shooting occurs, following several characters as they live out their school lives, unaware of what is about to unfold. The film stars mostly new or non-professional actors, including John Robinson
, Alex Frost
and Eric Deulen
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 film opens with Mr. McFarland (Timothy Bottoms
) driving erratically down a residential street with his son John (John Robinson
) in the passenger seat. It becomes apparent that Mr. McFarland is intoxicated
as John instructs him to pull over and let him drive. They arrive at John's high school, where he refuses to give his father the car keys and ends up leaving them in the school office for his brother to collect.
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.
Cast of characters
- Alex Frost as Alex, a cold, calculating, and ruthless teenager harassed by jocks, accomplished but frustrated pianist and sketch artist.
- Eric Deulen as Eric, a slacker, Alex's friend, and the other killer. He is much less intelligent than Alex, and Alex is obviously aware of this.
- John Robinson as John McFarland, Alex's friend who has trouble at school while managing his alcoholic father.
- Timothy Bottoms as Mr. McFarland, John's alcoholic father.
- Matt Malloy as Mr. Luce, the principal of the school. Cornered by Eric, who falsely spares him, he is presumed dead after shot several times.
- Elias McConnell as Elias, an aspiring photography student building his portfolio with portraits of other students. Although not shown, presumed shot and killed by Alex in the library.
- Nathan Tyson and Carrie Finklea as Nathan and Carrie, a popular lifeguard/American football player and his girlfriend. Both, or one shot and probably killed when Alex corners them in the Cafeteria meat locker, Alex taunts Eeny, meeny, miny, moe and it is unknown which one he shot, or if the other survived.
- Kristen Hicks as Michelle, a nerdy girl ashamed of her body, the film follows her through the locker room and into the library where she assists. She is the first to die during the shooting.
- Brittany Mountain, Jordan Taylor, and Nicole George as Brittany, Jordan, and Nicole, three bulimic teenage girls who talk incessantly, gripe about parents, and squabble with one another. All presumed shot and killed by Alex.
- Alicia Miles as Acadia, a close friend of John's and a member of the Gay-Straight Alliance. She successfully escapes from the school and the shooters.
- Bennie Dixon as Benny, an athletic student who helps Acadia escape out of a window before approaching Eric. He is shot and presumed dead after trying to help Mr. Luce.
The film began as a television film
that Van Sant had intended to make about the Columbine High School massacre
; eventually, the idea of a factual account
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.
JT LeRoy is credited as an associate producer for the film. JT is a pen name for author Laura Albert.
The title is a tribute to the 1989 BBC film of the same name
, directed by Alan Clarke
, which reflects on sectarian violence
in Northern Ireland
. Van Sant's minimalist style and use of tracking shots mirrors Clarke's film. Clarke used the title to refer to the phrase "elephant in the room
" - a reference to the collective denial of some very obvious problem. It has been speculated that it was really named after the symbol of the Republican Party
in the United States, which supports the National Rifle Association
and easy access to firearms for anyone.
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.
North American premiere and release
premiered in North America
at a benefit for the Outside In
youth shelter in Portland, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, in Portland, Oregon
, on Saturday, October 4
, with several teenagers who appeared in the film in attendance.
The film was released for incremental distribution by HBO, in 100 theaters in the United States, beginning October 24, 2003. English language release on DVD and VHS began on May 4, 2004.
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.
Relationship to real school massacres
- One of the shooters is taking notes in the cafeteria about how many kids there will be there when they attack, something Eric Harris did to know when they would set the timers for the bombs to go off in the real Columbine cafeteria.
- Two male shooters.
- The use of explosives.
- The failure of primary explosives to detonate.
- Both shooters wear knives during the massacre.
- The use of a TEC9 Semi-Automatic Pistol.
- The use of a Shotgun.
- The shooters warn a mutual friend to run away before their attacks.
- One of the shooters takes a drink out of a cup in the cafeteria after previously killing students there.
Red Lake High School massacre
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.