Beauty competes with vacuity in Elephant, and for a good stretch of writer-director Gus Van Sant’s maddeningly passive ode to high school innocence and Columbine-age youthful evil, beauty wins. The school is fictional and unnamed. The students, played by real kids rather than professional actors, are types — the jock, the artistic guy, the bulimic in-crowd girls, the losers. Yet from the first images of drilling footballers and swirling clouds in an autumnal sky, Van Sant conjures the feeling of suburban school-year everydayness with Proustian power, and the canny artlessness of his long tracking shots is at times breathtaking: While a cute jock (Nathan Tyson) walks off the field into the school and navigates wide, ”Shining”-long hallways, the camera follows him with all the time and patience of a Frederick Wiseman documentary epic.
The director of ”My Own Private Idaho” and ”Good Will Hunting” and his mood-attuned cinematographer, Harris Savides (with whom Van Sant made the improv-y existential trifle ”Gerry”), provide the antidote to the perviness of Larry Clark’s doomed ”Kids” generation for much of this short drama. But when Van Sant extends the affect of randomness to the apocalyptic plans of two outcasts, he sacrifices truth for teen-flick shock (and the unsavoriness of a man too old to still be hanging around the schoolyard) in the guise of neutrally observing all-American, inexplicable horror.
Van Sant has said that he made ”Elephant” — the title refers to the kind of problem in the room no one wants to acknowledge — in response to the student shooting sprees that made headlines in the late 1990s, and that he wanted to avoid offering easy explanations. (Bowling for Cannes film-festival honors, the movie knocked down the Palme d’Or and best director awards.) Yet the filmmaker offers plenty of coy nonexplanations. Silently enduring taunts at school, Alex (Alex Frost) comes home and plays Beethoven on his piano. (He’s sensitive?) His friend Eric (Eric Duelen) drops by to play shoot-and-kill computer games. (He’s desensitized?) Historical Nazi footage (romanticized?) spools on a TV screen. A semi-automatic weapon arrives for the boys (unsupervised?) by mail order. Van Sant throws in an experimental kiss (homoeroticized?) and the prebattle admonition ”most importantly, have fun.” Then he runs for cover while carnage ensues (trivialized).