Generally favorable reviews - based on 37 Critics

Critic score distribution:
  1. Positive: 25 out of 37
  2. Negative: 2 out of 37
  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. Reviewed by: Ruthe Stein
    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. Reviewed by: Ken Fox
    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. Reviewed by: Don R. Lewis
    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. 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. Calmly, almost serenely, Mr. Van Sant and his superb cinematographer, Harris Savides, reveal a vision of contemporary American youth quite unlike any other.
  37. 60
    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 120 Ratings

User score distribution:
  1. Positive: 41 out of 73
  2. Negative: 27 out of 73
  1. Jul 5, 2013
    In 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 »
  2. Jul 23, 2013
    I pretty much liked the style of the film, I thought it was interesting. But at the end of the movie, there were too many walking sequences, and too little character development. I felt like they could have done more with it. At least, that's my opinion. Full Review »
  3. May 20, 2013
    Here we go. And I thought "Natural Born Killers" was bad. I was glad that I had some cold drinks while "Date Movie" was playing, even gladder to turn it off.

    And now, possibly the worst film ever made, "Elephant".

    Don't read this if you have any intention of seeing this movie. I suggest you do something more rewarding though...have you clipped your toenails? You could also count the grains of salt in a salt shaker, that could be okay.

    I wasn't offended by the content, but by the complete banality of this movie. I know, I know, it was supposed to be like "real" life. It's supposed to be "art". But just because something is filmed differently doesn't mean it's any good.

    Here is the story (you don't need to read this if you know anything about the Columbine school shooting): It's a regular day at high school, until two misfit kids bring in guns and kill a bunch of people. There you go.

    This movie was LAZY. There was not one good character in this film. Of course, this was also for the purpose of being more "real", but come on. The "protagonists" were cookie cutter stereotypes the artsy photographer, the jock, the bulimic girls, the cafeteria workers smoking weed, etc...etc........And the acting! Yikes. The scene at the end, where the blond kid is "warning" others not to enter the school? I doubt the script's instructions said "With little-no urgency". Think "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" (Gene Wilder) in the scenes where the kids are going to so something bad and Wonka goes, "Oh. no. stop. don't."

    Apart from the piano playing (and even malicious teen boys who are into Beethoven is NOT an original idea, hello, Clockwork Orange), the boys who bring the guns into the school at the end are such a cliche slightly less good looking than the other kids, dressed in military clothes, into Nazis ("Heavens to Betsy! They're watching videos of Hitler! They're EVIL, I just caught on!") and violent video games, homosexual tendencies (of course the homosexual kids HAVE to be the f***ed up outcasts, right?) wasn't even clear that they were being antagonized at school apart from a spitball being thrown at one of them at one point.

    Instead of, well, anything, we are subjected to watching the back of some kid's head to the soundtrack of Beethoven's ENTIRE "Moonlight Sonata" as he walks through his (very extensive) high school grounds. We are subjected to the same scene played repeatedly through "different perspectives". We are shown a bunch of clouds throughout Beethoven's "Fur Elise." Please.

    And let's not forget about the movie's "messages", which were about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Real art raises, and even answers questions. This movie just insulted my intelligence. Yes, guns are WAYYY to easy to obtain in the USA (although I don't think Van Sant did his research for the scene in "Elephant"). Yes, no one takes the time to KNOW these kids, and we'll never know the reason for this senseless tragedy. Yes, parents should be more present in their kids' lives. Yes, violence is awful and pointless. Oh yeah, and school shootings are X-tra baaaad.

    Gus Van Sant just took advantage of a subject people were sensitive about. Gus Van Sant capitalizes on real tragedy with this thing.

    It had nothing to say. It's just awful and possibly insulting for people who had to deal with these issues in real life, and not on some cushy, pretentious art-house movie set.
    Full Review »