Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Shubha Ghosh
Professor of Law at the University at Buffalo Law School


Read other reviews:

Internet Movie Database

All Movie Guide

Readers' comments




Van Sant really makes no judgment about evil; he just shows it unfold. Evil is inevitable, he seems to be saying, and its nature is elusive.

Feature article

Shooting Gus Van Sant's Elephant

by Shubha Ghosh

Elephant, the winner of the 2003 Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, begins and ends with the image of clouds rolling onto a palish blue sky. In between, the director Gus Van Sant shows us the casual lives of several high school students as their day explodes into a Columbine-style shooting. Some of the students we see die, some live. We cannot predict which. The spree killers are shown in various poses: as victim of spit balls, as dorky teenager with distant parents, as student of piano, as cruiser of the Internet in search of guns, as random killer of administrators, staff, and classmates. Bracketing all this are the expansive skies filled only with clouds, silent, unjudging. At the end of the eighty minutes we are left with no better knowledge of the demons we witnessed or the demons that lurk out there. Movies have charms to depict the savage breast, but seemingly no ability to tame them.

The movie has been described as bold in its uncompromising depiction of nihilism. One critic has described the movie as "irresponsible" because van Sant offers no explanation for the event we are shown. The tone of the movie is flat and unjudging. As a result, we are forced to recognize the urgent need to fill the void that Van Sant has displayed and that leaves us empty.

The biggest question of all is the identity of the eponymous elephant. The obvious reference is to the three blind men asked to identify an elephant, each having one handle on the beast, the trunk or the tail or the leg. Certainly, Van Sant plays with perspective through the movie, but the point is not to emphasize the relativity of reality. Instead, we are forced to ask the difficult question, what is the elephant that we are supposed to be seeing and the director has chosen to shoot.

One possible answer is that the elephant is High School. Since most of the movies tracks the meanderings of actual students through the hallways of an actual high school in Portland, the director's hometown and the transplanted locale of Columbine, High School seems a strong candidate for the elephant. Violence appears in quiet ways even before the actual shootings. One student is seen dealing with an alcoholic parent who runs into mailboxes on the drive to school. A female student is warned about flirting with a boy because his girlfriend once slapped someone who did. Another student speaks nonchalantly about her fears of dying in a car crash. This is not school as envisioned by John Dewey. But we are not shown Pink Floyd's vision either. The movie does not say anything particularly new or interesting about high school life. The point is that these high school lives are so ordinary and uninteresting while their deaths are so dramatic. If High School's the elephant, the movie remains sad and depressing, rather than tragic and cathartic.

Another possible, perhaps more compelling, answer is that the elephant is the Nature of Evil. One of the most disturbing scenes for me occurred right before the start of the shootings. Alex and Eric, the film's equivalents of Dyland and Eric, are cutting school to watch television. A movie about the Third Reich is playing. In the background, we see through the living room window a Fed Ex truck pulling into the driveway. The driver rings the doorbell and cheerfully drops off a large packet, which the kids quickly open to reveal semi-automatic weapons. Nazi rallies play on the television as the show's narrator recounts the ascendancy of Hitler. Eric at that point asks Alex the casual and telling, question: "That's Hitler, right?" The punch line illustrates the ultimate banality of evil, not to mention the failure of high school education. It is worthwhile to note that one of the two shooters is named Alex in the film, perhaps a reference to the protagonist of A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick's film about youth violence and society's inability to cure or repress it. Van Sant really makes no judgment about evil; he just shows it unfold. Evil is inevitable, he seems to be saying, and its nature is elusive.

While the eponymous elephant could be the Nature of Evil, a even more compelling candidate is Fate. To talk about evil is to assert a judgment, and it is not clear that Van Sant necessarily views Alex and Eric as evil people. They act out, just like their fellow classmates are shown acting out, but with far deadlier consequences. The final words in the film are "Eenie-meenie-miney-mo" spoken by Alex as he waves his rifle back and forth between two classmates pleading for their lives. The director, with this ending, reminds us that these events are random. We can impose some logic to them after we have seen the movie. We can blame Alex and Eric for being evil or deviants or their parents for being neglectful or their school for being alienating. But ultimately shootings just happen, and a chance decision to go to the school library rather than to the gym is the sole difference between life and death.

To see the elephant of the film as Fate casts light on the aftermath of Columbine and the spate of high school shootings that preceded and followed. Parents and victims turn to the court system to find a solution. Some call it closure; others justice. The Kliebolds and the Harrises, the school, the police, and even the manufacturer of an anti-depressant that one of the shooter's was taking have been blamed for the events. Elephant reminds us that placing of blame, while demanded by the law, is ultimately empty. For many, this message disappoints. Perhaps a more appropriate title for the movie, given its seeming lack of a message, would have been Oakland.

But Van Sant does have a "there" in his film. The message is for us, and generations after us, to see what the horrors of Columbine must have been like. While legal scholars, social scientists, public intellectuals, and moralizers will struggle to understand why such spree killings occur, the point in shooting van Sant's Elephant is to never forget that they have occurred and could occur again. The more subtle point of this amazing movie is that perhaps the best film, and law, can do is make us remember.

Posted December 23, 2003

Would you like to comment on this article? Please submit your comments here.

 Top of page

 Home | Silver Screen | Small Screen | News & Views