A decade ago, I was a teenager in high school. I had my first job at my local movie theater and used my newfound disposable income to get a Netflix subscription.
Over the summer of 2004, 17/18 year old Matt wrote 21 movie reviews and posted them on IMDb. Recently, I dug up these reviews and decided to revisit each movie and evaluate how my tastes have changed over the last decade.
So for each of these posts, I will write a present-day review and then copy/paste the original review after. Then, I’ll compare the two and give a summary at the end. You can find all the reviews here, follow me on Twitter here and check out The Obsessive Viewer Podcast here. Now, lets talk about Elephant.
My 2014 Review
Gus Van Zant’s Elephant follows several high school students throughout what appears to be a normal school day. As the day progresses, however, it takes a dark turn before ending in tragedy.
I’ve held Elephant in a very high regard over the last decade. I remember watching it before school one morning and feeling the effects of it latch onto my subconscious. This was the rare movie that affected my mood and altered my emotions throughout the day.
Seeing it now, a decade after first seeing it and 9 years after graduating high school, I still felt some of the chills I felt in 2004. But I also noticed some blemishes. Namely, the ham-fisted inclusion of a group scene discussing gay rights and general intolerance does more harm than good. The dialogue was stilted and the message was a little too on the nose.
A later scene revealing two important characters’ sexual orientation compliments the group scene. This felt unnecessary. It was like the movie was making a statement for the sake of making a statement. The actions of these two characters drive the movie. Their motives are implied with some scenes of bullying but the scene in question forces the movie to make a sloppy statement about anti-gay bullying specifically.
I would have preferred that the scene was kept out of the movie and the characters’ motives kept more vague. The movie’s chilling final act is somewhat less eerie with the aforementioned scene’s inclusion. With it, Elephant loses a piece of its mystique as the characters become victims of anti-gay bullying instead of troubled teens bullied for being outcasts. The message would have been carried much sharper if the viewer could have filled in the blanks of the characters’ motivations with their own experiences.
Elephant still accomplishes what it sets out to in that it is thought provoking and terrifying. At times the acting is distractingly bad while at most other times it is decidedly mediocre. It doesn’t dampen the experience too much, however, as the movie is designed to show us the mundane nature of teenage life. In so doing that, there aren’t many opportunities for breakout performances. In the end, it still left a little bit to be desired.
Elephant is a chilling look at tragedy and the disturbing trend of high school violence. It’s a little rough around the edges and its message is slightly diluted by an extraneous hint at some character motivations. Yet, it still stands as a unique reminder of the horrors that have faced too many students who’ve adorned countless headlines over the years.
This movie may not be worthy of your home collection, but it is worth the effort it takes to travel to your nearest Red Box kiosk.
My 2004 Review
9 June 2004
*-Catch it on TV **-Worth a Rental ***-Buy It Used ****-Worthy of a Blind Buy
I was at my local video rental store today, hoping to get City of God, when I came across “Elephant”. I had only heard that it was very well received so I read the back of the box. Reading that it was the story of a day at a typical high school that ends tragically and told through several different perspectives I was intrigued. Reading that it won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003 sealed the deal.
I rented it and immediately watched it. The first half of the film was very realistic in portraying several different students from different social circles interacting with the people around them. I really enjoyed the Pulp Fiction feel to the narration and felt that it told the story very well. The mood changed about midway through the film when John, the first character we are introduced to, is exiting the school and sees two classmates dressed in camos, carrying bags into the school. The rest of film has the feeling of impending danger. I was nervous throughout the last half of the film and when it was over I found myself speechless. As a high school student myself I found this film to be very creepy and disturbing in a powerful way.
There isn’t much to say about the acting. I read that the film’s cast were mostly non-actors and that a lot of the film was improvised. This made it even more realistic. The one downside to “Elephant” was the character Benny. He is introduced with around 15 minutes to go in the film and has no lines. The audience has no idea who this is as he wanders around the school. I am sure that I just did not catch the point of this character and, while his presence isn’t enough to completely condemn the movie, it is a bit of a distraction. The last scene of the film is very chilling and it leaves you frozen while the credits roll. Overall, the reason for Elephant’s success at Cannes is completely obvious as it is a masterpiece of storytelling. Gus Van Sant’s directing is nothing short of brilliant and I will undoubtedly be recommending this to mostly everyone I come into contact to in the following weeks. ***1/2! By the way, my local video store was all out of City of God.
Summing Up: Then and Now
“…it is a masterpiece of storytelling.” Groan. Look, as I post these reviews, we’re all going to have to accept the fact that teenage Matt was extremely prone to hyperbole. At the time I’m sure I was convinced this movie was a “masterpiece of storytelling” but the fact that I only gave it 3.5 out of 4 stars kind of takes the importance out of that statement.
The purpose behind Benny’s character flew way over my head a decade ago. It didn’t bother me at all when I watched it this time around, simply because it worked well. In the context of the movie, Benny served a purpose and delivered an important message to the audience. Without spoiling it, his scenes punctuated the senseless nature of what was happening onscreen. Benny was Van Zant’s means of telling the audience that Elephant isn’t a Hollywood movie with a hero that will save the day before the credits rolled.