Saturday, May 04, 2013

American Horror Story

Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" is a terrifying film made even more so by the fact that there are large swaths of the film where nothing much happens.  You watch high school students during the course of their day at and around school, the students being followed in long-tracking shots reminiscent of the legendary Big Wheel scenes in "The Shining."  You know what is coming, so you watch these scenes with an increasing sense of dread, wondering what lies behind every corner and every door.  But as they unfold, they seem entirely ordinary.

Which is exactly the point.  Van Sant isn't out to make some bold statement about what causes mass shootings and murder, although there are shots where bullying takes place, where violent video games are played, and where weapons of destruction are casually bought on the Internet.  What he's saying is that this could happen anywhere - or anytime.  And that's why the film is so terrifying.  There is no sense to what happens - no one is picked out for anything in particular that they did.  It's nothing more than a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time - in particular, the large rooms like the library and the cafeteria, where there is no place to hide.  The sense of disorientation is enhanced when Van Sant, on more than one occasion, rewinds the timeline of the narrative and shows us a different perspective of the same event.

None of the kids in the movie were professional actors, and they are entirely believable.  They go about their days, and they react to the horror that envelops them in entirely realistic ways.  For the most part, they freeze where they are, reacting a sense of panic and disbelief so strong that it traps them like cement.  Yet even those demonstrating a presence of mind are not safe.  It's entirely random.

"Elephant" is not a fun movie to watch by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a very effective one.

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