"Elephant" is formally inventive. Shot in "academy format," the almost square 1:1.33 ratio we're used to from TV, the film relies on long tracking shots of students wandering the hallways. While it's not based specifically on Littleton, the finished product looks like an artfully put-together semi-documentary. With a few exceptions, all actors are amateurs, high school students Van Sant found in an open call. The original script by literary enfant terrible JT Leroy was chucked, and all dialogue is improvised by the kids who more or less play themselves.
In its brief 81 minutes, "Elephant" follows individual students through part of their day. As the camera ambles down corridors first with one, then another student, we witness certain scenes repeatedly -- as if Van Sant was assembling a four-dimensional map of the high school on the fateful day of the shooting. In locker rooms, chemistry classes, and the cafeteria, we learn what most of us still remember all too well: being a teenager sucks.
While some of the students go about developing pictures, throwing up lunch, or talking their girlfriends into risky afternoon adventures, two outsiders by the names Eric and Alex assemble their mail-order assault rifles and prepare to take revenge on the kids who pelted them with spitballs . The last fifteen minutes or so of "Elephant" are dedicated to the carnage -- blood splattering on library stacks, the trophy case on fire, dead bodies under cafeteria tables, and the principal begging for mercy.
"Elephant" is rich in authentic detail and vivid fracas. What it entirely misses, however, is any kind of attempt at explaining the reasons for Eric and Alex's killing spree. Van Sant illustrates, but he fails to illuminate. Asked about what kind of insights he gained from making the film, Van Sant said something about creating a "thought machine" rather than a film that provides solutions.
I'm not sure what a "thought machine" is, but I know sensationalism when I see it. "Elephant" has nothing whatsoever to add to the debate about violence in schools. When the movie starts, Eric and Alex have already decided on their course of action.