Generally favorable reviews - based on 37 Critics

Critic score distribution:
  1. Positive: 25 out of 37
  2. Negative: 2 out of 37

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Critic Reviews

  1. 100
    It simply looks at the day as it unfolds, and that is a brave and radical act; it refuses to supply reasons and assign cures, so that we can close the case and move on.
  2. Van Sant gives no pat or easy answers. Instead he makes us squirm, worry, and think. That's why Elephant is a must-see movie.
  3. 100
    Makes the Columbine shootings seem both abstract yet more painful and vivid. It also gets you excited all over again about the things movies can do.
  4. 100
    The atmosphere is hypo-stylized, vividly generic and worse than real, like a doomy Frederick Wiseman documentary.
  5. 88
    To those who see no purpose to this film, I say the purpose is learning not to turn a blind eye. The unique and unforgettable Elephant keeps its eyes wide open.
  6. Is it, the debate asks, a truly substantial work or just a stylish cop-out? Well, for once, I'm voting with the French.
  7. The characters need more exploration, especially the killers. Yet this look at teen life and death chills you anyway.
  8. 75
    Van Sant's audacious, poetic and emotionally distanced film doesn't even have a plot. It's just a random series of incidents one day at a suburban high school.
  9. The film equivalent of Maya Lin's Vietnam monument, that collective gravestone to the fallen, in the way it employs abstract means to quantify the loss of life and elicit a profound sense of grief.
  10. A haunting elegy on the unpredictability of life. Never knowing what the next minute might bring is the elephant in all our lives.
  11. A ­movie that takes impartiality to new places artistically. The film is infuriating.
  12. 25
    The film itself is an exercise in frustration.
  13. 80
    Like the violence in Alan Clarke's Elephant, the BBC documentary about Northern Ireland from which the film takes its name, Van Sant offers no straightforward reasons for what happens at this particular school. The explosion of violence is far from unmotivated, but its roots are presented as deeply personal and, even more troubling, ultimately inexplicable.
  14. 50
    Given their lack of training, nearly all the young performers do a commendable job. It's the director who slips up by, among other things, dividing his cast into such predictable phyla.
  15. 40
    A pointless rehashing of a horrible event.
  16. 89
    Wisely, a lot like the real event. No answers are given, barely any questions are asked, and the film unfolds at a leisurely, inexorable pace that stymies the traditional filmmaking tropes of tension and release.
  17. 91
    The exquisitely exact photography and sound design represent the highest level of craft of Van Sant's career.
  18. 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.
  19. The effect is riveting and telling--not always realistic (none of the characters carry cell phones) but often enlightening.
  20. Working with cinematographer Harris Savides and serving as the film's editor, he (Van Sant) has fashioned a visual style and a narrative shape that has the quality of a waking dream, then a nightmare. Rarely do form and content add up with such harmonious grace and power.
  21. An understated, hypnotic stroke of brilliance.
  22. 90
    A movie that throws out the rules with audacity, assurance and admirable moral seriousness.
  23. 80
    Has a gentle, hypnotic tone that's insistently sweet and elegiac, in spite of the horrors that overwhelm the frame. In its juxtaposition of the serene and the violent, the beautiful and the brutal, the film achieves a balance that's exquisitely judged, tiptoeing artfully through a cultural minefield.
  24. By making the camera an observer, we get a perspective that often comes out of horror movies, a choice that whips the ordinary with the terrifying, an unforgettable mix.
  25. 70
    Flagrantly artistic and transfixed by its own enigma, Elephant is strongest on evoking a succession of specific, "empty" moments and weakest on motivation.
  26. Reviewed by: David Ansen
    There’s much to argue with, but this unconventional, oddly beautiful film resonates in unexpected ways.
  27. 60
    This is a deeply disturbing (if not very satisfying) view of what happened at Columbine and in other school shootings.
  28. Reviewed by: David Edelstein
    It's a daring and original effort, yet so noncommittal--so purposely vague--that it's apt to leave you flummoxed: at once stricken and etherized.
  29. It’s just another example of art-house hokey-pokey. Amazingly, this film won both the Palme d’Or and Best Director Award at Cannes, beating out, among others, "Mystic River."
  30. 50
    As lead Columbine investigator Kate Battan has herself put it, “Everybody wants a quick answer. They want an easy answer so that they can sleep at night and know this is not going to happen tomorrow.” And now they have Gus Van Sant's Elephant.
  31. 40
    Elephant is not as bad as the National Rifle Association's decision to hold a pro-gun rally near Columbine High School shortly after the killings. Unlike the NRA, Van Sant doesn't have blood on his hands. But he shares something of its callousness.
  32. Reviewed by: Todd McCarthy
    Achieves some glancing poetic effects during its first hour, but becomes gross and exploitative during the shooting rampage of the final act.
  33. A braggart piece of empty exhibitionism.
  34. Premiere
    Reviewed by: Glenn Kenny
    I haven't been crazy about a lot of Van Sant's recent work, but what he does here is simply astonishing. [November 2003, p. 25]
  35. What the film does extremely well is take us deep into the crime scene, and give faces to the victims so we can experience this epic, incomprehensible and somehow prototypically American act of violence on a more personal and intimate level.
  36. Wall Street Journal
    Reviewed by: Joe Morgenstern
    Calmly, almost serenely, Mr. Van Sant and his superb cinematographer, Harris Savides, reveal a vision of contemporary American youth quite unlike any other.
  37. The New Yorker
    Reviewed by: David Denby
    In the end, this odd, beautiful movie is remote and more suggestive than satisfying--a coolly impassive film about catastrophe made at a time when some of us might prefer an attempt at explanation. And yet Elephant is something to see. [27 October 2003, p. 112]
User Score

Generally favorable reviews- based on 132 Ratings

User score distribution:
  1. Positive: 38 out of 74
  2. Negative: 27 out of 74
  1. David
    Jan 10, 2009
    Simply put, this is a film where you either like its style or you do not. I very much fall into the former category. It is a hypnotizing and Simply put, this is a film where you either like its style or you do not. I very much fall into the former category. It is a hypnotizing and harrowing experiene. The films greatest strength besides just the superb cinematography is its portrayl or real people- I mean REAL people. We all knew people like these in high school, they are not cliches at all- quite the opposite. Even if you hated this movie I know you could never forget it, and to those that "got" it, this is truly one of the greatest films of the new millenium thus far. Full Review »
  2. MikeT.
    Oct 18, 2005
    This movie is awful. It's the cinematic equivalent of an empty canvas - arrogant and insulting. My immediate response when the movie This movie is awful. It's the cinematic equivalent of an empty canvas - arrogant and insulting. My immediate response when the movie thankfully ended, was "that's 80 minutes of my life I'll never get back". This is a class project, not a film. As a class project, it might rate a good grade. I highly reccomend this movie for cinematography instructors - it will give you something to talk about. I gave it 1 point for the cinematography (I was going to give it 2, but the scene with a flag football game where the camera didn't move for 5 minutes was a 1 point deduction). For anybody looking for something of interest, or to be (gasp!) entertained, don't bother. This must be what watching a snuff film is like. I knew where the film would evolve to, and sat through an agonizing hour of nothing to get there. Only to have the 20 minutes of actual script concentrate entirely on the violence, and end suddenly with no warning, no point, and no conclusion. A prize winning film? Right. This is a film for those people who likes anything that they are sure nobody else will like, because that allows them to proclaim themselves to be an "expert". A for Arrogant. B for Boring. C for Catatonic. D for Dreadful. And F for the movie's grade. Full Review »
  3. Jul 5, 2013
    In the wake of the Columbine school shootings, there was much discussion and sensationalism around what could have motivated the two killersIn the wake of the Columbine school shootings, there was much discussion and sensationalism around what could have motivated the two killers to commit such horrific acts before taking their own lives. Elephant explores this question by giving us a window into the harrowing final moments of a pair of fictional high school murderers, as well as their victims.

    The film follows several different students in the hour that leads up to the beginning of the violence, showing us the normality of their day to day lives. These segments are surprisingly engrossing, considering it's just people going about their business and interacting with the world that they inhabit. The perpetrators are included in this and are revealed to be pretty average teenagers. The lack of hyperbole in the portrayal is chilling and it's a quality that typifies the tone of the picture as a whole. The documentary feel of the style feeds into this and further accentuates the unspectacular nature of the day, though it's not just the pragmatic approach to filming that is important in this regard.

    The cast are made up of untrained high school students, most of whom carry their real names on-screen as well as off. Personally, I found this a little eerie, but that may perhaps have been the point. There were apparently no prepared lines to speak of, Van Sant preferring to allow the amateurs to improvise. This not only helps give the dialogue a genuine flavour, but also avoids any complications that could have arisen through unskilled acting combined with trying to remember what to say. Ultimately, the freedom that is given makes for performances that feel remarkably natural, providing an atmosphere of unsettling realism.

    There's also much to appreciate as far as the cinematography is concerned. The incredibly long takes that follow the students as they go through the day are impressive, taking in the bustling environment of the school and its inhabitants. Considering the leisurely pace of the editing, it's perhaps somewhat surprising that the film is almost unbearably tense at times. The knowledge of what is to come coupled with the blissful unawareness of the characters is largely responsible for this. It's an aspect that becomes even more effective once panic begins to spread, confusion, chaos and disbelief replacing the mundane.

    As an experience, it can be hard to watch, though in the best possible way. The lack of movie conventions, particularly in terms of gunplay, makes the action that much more moving. There's nothing in the way of stylistic affectation applied and the detached coldness that this provides mirrors the attitude of the killers, bringing the events home with a shockingly powerful impact.
    Full Review »