Elephant (2003 film)

This article is about the movie. For The White Stripes album released in the same year, see Elephant (album).

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Produced by Diane Keaton
Dany Wolf
JT LeRoy
Written by Gus Van Sant
Starring Alex Frost
Eric Deulen
John Robinson
Cinematography Harris Savides
Edited by Gus Van Sant
Meno Film Company
Distributed by Fine Line Features
HBO Films
Release dates
  • October 24, 2003 (2003-10-24)
Running time
81 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $3 million
Box office $10 million[1]

Elephant is a 2003 drama film edited, written and directed by Gus Van Sant. It takes place in the fictional Watt High School, in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, and chronicles the events surrounding a school shooting, based in part on the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. The film begins a short time before the shooting occurs, following the lives of several characters both in and out of school, who are unaware of what is about to unfold. The film stars mostly new or non-professional actors, including John Robinson, Alex Frost, and Eric Deulen.

Elephant is the second film in Van Sant's "Death Trilogy" — the first is Gerry (2002) and the third Last Days (2005) — all three of which are based on actual events.

Elephant was generally acclaimed by critics and received the Palme d'Or at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival,[2] in which Patrice Chéreau was the head of the jury. As the first high-profile movie to depict a high school shooting since Columbine, the film was controversial for its subject matter and possible influence on teenage copy-cats.


Mr. McFarland driving erratically down a residential street on the way to drop off his son John. John notices damage to the car and realizes that his father is drunk, so John instructs him to move to the passenger seat and let him drive.

Alex and Eric are bullied at school by the so-called jocks, one of whom diverts a teacher and throws a spitball at Alex during science class. Later, Alex and Eric are shown at home ordering weapons from a website and receiving a rifle in the mail. While Alex is taking a shower, Eric gets in with him. He claims that he has never kissed anyone before, and the two kiss. The two formulate an attack plan. The next day, Alex and Eric prepare for the shooting, then make their way to school in silence in Alex's car.

After arriving at school, Alex and Eric encounter John outside and tell him to leave, as some "heavy shit's about to go down". Realizing what is about to happen, John attempts to warn others not to enter the school, to little effect. The two gunmen then enter the school, and after their plans to blow up parts of the school with propane bombs fail, begin shooting indiscriminately. Elias 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 the building. The two boys separate, continuing their killing spree. Alex enters the bathroom where Brittany, Jordan and Nicole are, presumably shooting all three. Mr. Luce, cornered by Eric in a hallway, begs Eric to lower his weapon and talk to him, but Eric yells, "I ain't putting shit down!" and fires at him. He does speak to Mr. Luce, however; while he is doing so, he turns around suddenly to see Benny approaching him. Eric shoots and presumably kills Benny. Eric turns back to Luce and warns him not to bully kids like Alex and himself. He then agrees to let the man go, only to gun him down seconds later.

Alex enters the cafeteria, which is strewn with overturned chairs, backpacks, several dead bodies, and numerous abandoned half-eaten lunches, and sits down. Alex picks up a cup from an abandoned lunch and casually drinks from it. Eric meets up with him, and they have a brief conversation, which ends when Alex shoots Eric in mid-sentence. Alex 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 cuts to credits leaving the ending ambiguous.


Alex (Alex Frost) on his shooting rampage.


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 was dropped.

Elephant was filmed in Van Sant's hometown, 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.

JT LeRoy (a pen name for author Laura Albert) is credited as an associate producer for the film.

The title Elephant is a tribute to the 1989 BBC short film of the same name, directed by Alan Clarke. Van Sant originally believed Clarke's title referred to the parable of the blind men and elephant, in which several blind men try to describe an elephant, and each draws different conclusions based on which body part he touched, and Van Sant's film uses that interpretation, as the same general timeline is shown multiple times from multiple viewpoints. [3] Later, Van Sant discovered Clarke's film referred to the phrase "elephant in the room" (the collective denial of some obvious problem).[4] Also, Gus Van Sant named Chantal Akerman's film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) an inspiration. [5]

Clarke's film Elephant reflects on sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Van Sant's minimalist style and use of tracking shots mirrors Clarke's film.[6][7]

A drawing of an elephant as well as an image of an elephant on a bed throw can be seen in Alex's room while he plays the piano.


Box office

Elephant 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, 2003, with several teenagers who appeared in the film in attendance. The film was released for incremental distribution by HBO in 38 theaters in the United States, beginning October 24, 2003. The film opened in a limited release in North America on October 24, 2003 in 6 theaters and grossed $93,356 with an average of $15,559 per theater ranking 36th at the box office. It ended up making $1,266,955 domestically and $8,745,067 elsewhere for a total of $10,012,022, above its $3 million budget.[1]

Critical response

Elephant received mainly positive reviews from critics and has a score of 72% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 156 reviews with an average rating of 7.1 out of 10. The critical consensus states "The movie's spare and unconventional style will divide viewers."[8] The film also has a score of 70 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 37 critics indicating "generally favourable reviews".[9]

Roger Ebert praised the film and gave it 4 out of 4 stars writing "Gus Van Sant's Elephant is a violent movie in the sense that many innocent people are shot dead. But it isn't violent in the way it presents those deaths. There is no pumped-up style, no lingering, no release, no climax. Just implacable, poker-faced, flat, uninflected death. Truffaut said it was hard to make an anti-war film because war was exciting even if you were against it. Van Sant has made an anti-violence film by draining violence of energy, purpose, glamor, reward and social context. It just happens. I doubt that Elephant will ever inspire anyone to copy what they see on the screen. Much more than the insipid message movies shown in social studies classes, it might inspire useful discussion and soul-searching among high school students."[10]

Home media

The film had its English language release on DVD and VHS on May 4, 2004.

Red Lake shootings controversy

The Red Lake shootings that occurred in 2005 was briefly blamed on the film, as it was viewed by gunman Jeff Weise 17 days prior to the event.[11] A friend of Weise said that he brought the film 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, Weise said and did nothing to make anyone suspect what he was planning.[12]

See also


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