I haven't seen Gus Van Sant's 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO, but I know of its reputation as a subject of consternation. The question that it provokes is: Why make this movie? It's a classic work by a distinctive filmmaker, so why go through the futile exercise of merely imitating the original? What is Van Sant's artistic vision, and what is the value in applying that vision to this subject matter, and in this particular way? Is the art of Van Sant's PSYCHO merely the act of making it? Is that enough?
Now that I've seen Van Sant's 2003 experimental drama ELEPHANT, he may well have two movies within the span of five years that warrant such existential scrutiny. Throughout ELEPHANT, I had similar questions about the purpose behind the project. Why make this movie about this subject? What is Van Sant bringing to the sensitive and emotionally wrought subject of school shootings? Is he exploiting the trauma? Is he exploiting the viewer? Or is he bringing a necessary perspective that will allow us to understand or feel about this subject in a new way?
Inspired by the mass murder at Columbine High School in 1999, Van Sant's ELEPHANT follows several intertwining threads within a normal high school day, with a variety of typical students going through their everyday lives. The popular kids, the misfits, the artists, the activists, the kids with troubled home lives, the shallow kids with fatuous concerns, they all wind through the halls of their school, occasionally crossing paths, often in their own worlds, oblivious to the trauma that we know is waiting for them. Like later movies such as UNITED 93, FRUITVALE STATION and UTØYA: JULY 22, Van Sant wants ELEPHANT to frame the mundaneity of life inside a slowly closing window of death. Also like those movies, Van Sant faces some enormous obstacles, primarily proving that his manipulation of a real-life shocking tragedy is somehow artistically elevated by his perspective, and not just fodder for maudlin or exploitative masturbation.
Although Van Sant is up to the aesthetic task of filming ELEPHANT, with a series of impressive long tracking shots following his natural young actors in and out of rooms and hallways and outdoor spaces, including several scenes re-created from different angles as the P.O.V. leaps from one student's back to another's, retracing the same timeline again and again, he never justifies the substance of his project. Everyone who hears news about a school shooting likely already has strong negative feelings about it, and a deep empathy for those who experienced it; and most everyone also remembers their own experience of high school. It's arguable that Van Sant, for all of his technical fluidity, adds nothing beyond reiterating those already known qualities for most of his 80-minute film. For at least an hour, ELEPHANT is so dull in its half-interested recreation of teen minutiae, that it can't support the weight of dread carried by the knowing viewer. I say this as someone who enjoys horror movies which start slow with lifelike depictions of ordinary young people who later encounter terror. What's the difference here? Perhaps it's that my expectations are lower when enjoying the mechanics of exploitation in an old-school slasher movie formula; the subject matter in ELEPHANT deserves more, and Van Sant's reputation brings the promise of something different. If Van Sant's purpose is to broach that comparison between life and exploitation, it's not a complicated enough issue to work through for 80 minutes, and anyone who is going watch a low-budget Van Sant arthouse movie in the first place has probably already answered that question for themselves.
Where Van Sant might surprise the audience is in the final 20 minutes of ELEPHANT, when his camera attaches itself to the future murderers, and studies their everyday existence leading up to their horrid crimes. That's an interesting idea, but feels so completely false in its realization that the final act craters the movie rather than rescues it. In addition to the hollow artificiality permeating his attempts to capture both school life and human reactions during an attack (which are often inexplicable here), it turns out that all Van Sant has to contribute philosophically to the subject matter of school shootings — platitudes and cliches — is no different than what anyone else has to say about them, and I doubt that there was any pointed meta-intent in that revelation. Instead, Van Sant has created a work of middling low-effort pseudo-reality that shares the most perplexing trait of all with its horrific subject matter: sheer wasteful pointlessness.