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Now and Then: On Film, America's Culture of Violence

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! May 1, 2012 at 6:14AM

The most terrifying 80 minutes I've spent in my career as a film critic were those spent watching "Elephant," in which even the rhythmic click-click-click of photographic negatives being shaken in chemicals brought me the edge of what I can bear.
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Gus Van Sant's "Elephant"
HBO Films Gus Van Sant's "Elephant"

The most terrifying 80 minutes I've spent in my career as a film critic were those spent watching "Elephant," in which even the rhythmic click-click-click of photographic negatives being shaken in chemicals brought me to the edge of what I can bear.

Gus Van Sant's 2003 Palme d'Or winner is as still as snow, the eye at the center of the hurricane. The camera pauses, hanging back as bodies (playing football, eating lunch) spill into the frame, and then fastens on a subject. Down linoleum hallways, past classrooms empty and full, through doors and back out of them, we follow the characters cautiously, in immense but unobtrusive tracking shots that stretch into the minutes. The soundtrack plucks at music suddenly sinister, Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," for instance, muffling soft snippets of inane adolescent talk. And then the report from the gun.

The real-life storm swirling around "Elephant" is the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, in which students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 of their classmates and one teacher, injured 21 others, and turned their weapons on themselves. Despite its closeness to actual events, Van Sant's film never approaches spectacle or exploitation. Even its search for the rationale behind such an act is tentative, moving among multiple points of view, shifting forward and backward in time as though desperate to discover an answer. Whatever conclusions "Elephant" arrives at are built from subtle implications and quiet suggestions. It is a chronicle of unknowing.

The potential clues pile up pell-mell, a chilling liturgy of troubles: mail-order guns, Nazi propaganda, bullying, repressed homosexuality, neglectful or absent adults, first-person shooter video games, personal vendettas, psychopathic tendencies. "Elephant" admirably does not, perhaps cannot, settle on a single explanation. Instead it follows each loose string of narrative to its terrible conclusion, building to an indictment of an entire society before cutting to the cracking sky, its thunder, its brewing clouds, its dark night rolling irrevocably in.

What's left, in a film that strips away every affectation of style, every spare syllable of exposition, is the experience of fear itself, the "eeny, meeny, miny, moe" randomness of the killings, their core inexplicability. The murderous video game one of the shooters plays before the attack consists only of bodies in an empty space, taken down without strategy or provocation. Violence is its own reason, and the annihilation of it.   

This is almost exactly the moral of "State of Play" (Kevin MacDonald, 2009), a film stylistically opposed to "Elephant" in nearly every sense. The music is an electric, heavy thump, the characters' lips loose with wisecracks and conspiracy theories. Against the bright, clear day of Van Sant's film, "State of Play" emerges from the shadows of dreary Washington nights.

Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck in "State of Play"
Universal Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck in "State of Play"


Though investigative reporter Cal McCaffrey (Russell Crowe) and Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) inhabit the hallways of power, they're pariahs of a sort, too — the former an aging lion of print journalism, the latter embroiled in a scandal of sex, death, and corporate malfeasance that would make Tom DeLay blanch.  

An update of "All the President's Men" for the Internet age, the film follows Cal and Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), a young, ambitious political blogger for the paper's web division, as they attempt to expose the innards of a Blackwater-like private security contractor with ties to a string of metro murders. Sharply written, with tense narrative momentum and a host of compelling supporting performances — Helen Mirren as a foulmouthed, hard-boiled editor; Jason Bateman as a tweaked-out source — the film is a first-rate, intelligent thriller.

I originally planned to pair "Elephant" with Dee Rees' finely observed coming-of-age/coming-out story, "Pariah" (new to DVD and VOD), but despite their handful of shared thematic concerns, I could not get past the break between the former's cold appraisal and the latter's warm, energizing optimism. "State of Play," on the other hand, seems an attempt to solve the mysteries Van Sant nods at — it examines, writ large, our culture of violence. It appreciates, even glorifies, the slow burn of print reporting rather than the constant crisis of 24-hour cable; it understands the world we create when the government condones its own crimes while castigating others.

What has always made "Elephant" so terrifying to me is the creeping sense that Alex and Eric could be any two boys, at any school, on any given day, that the problem runs deeper and wider than any one story. Collins, in a hearing about the defense contractor PointCorp's use of ex-soldiers as mercenaries that takes place about halfway through "State of Play," thinks along the same lines. "It's a great system, isn't it?" he says. "We pay to train these men, and you get rich by killing them."  

This article is related to: Now and Then, Directors, Genres, Thriller, Independents, Headliners, Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck


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