You can’t quite see her face up there, but that’s Michelle (Kristen Hicks). At 1:00:00 into Gus Van Sant’s school tragedy à clef Elephant (2003), she’s just minutes away from death. Nothing about her milieu, with its pastels and clipboards and desktop computer, suggests that a bloodbath is about to unfold, but that’s the ace up Van Sant’s sleeve. In the middle of a perfectly routine school day, it’s here—in this safest and blandest of high school libraries—that we’re about to see Michelle’s blood splattered on a bookshelf.
The contrast is shocking, but it comes about organically. The stories of the killers, Alex and Eric, chronologically parallel those of Michelle and other students (a photographer, a jock, a trio of clique-y girls). These narrative strands wind around one another, occasionally intersecting in small but significant ways, until the massacre begins and collapses them all into a unified tragedy. Michelle is the first to go: she spots the killers’ weapons as they enter the library, and only gets out a polite “Hey, you guys—” before she’s cut off.
But until that moment, she’s just a lonely teenage girl living out her splintered vignette. She has a brusque exchange with her gym teacher, changes her clothes, then walks through the halls, breaking into a run as she nears the library. Hicks is a non-professional actor, and it shows in her remarkably unadorned performance; she’s self-contained, giving only the most minimal emotional cues to the audience. Van Sant’s direction follows suit, stalking the characters for us but never telling us how to react to them. It’s scrupulously fly-on-the-wall filmmaking.
The end result is an impeccably naturalistic movie that recreates the average high school experience with uncanny accuracy before dragging it down into hell. The school library is a dead ringer for other high school libraries across the country; Michelle’s short conversation with the librarian is utterly plausible; and the camera angle here gives the scene an incidental flavor—as if we just happened to peek in on these characters, and this is what they were up to. Poor Michelle feels less like a fictional character and more like a documentary subject.
This quasi-documentary style, coupled with Hicks’s hushed acting style, makes me wish we’d seen more of Michelle, or at least seen her in a movie where she wasn’t marked for death. We learn vaguely of her body image problems, her awkwardness, and her difficulty socializing; she’s kind of like an ultra-realistic version of Sissy Spacek’s Carrie. But then, of course, she’s blown away. I know this is a movie about Columbine, but I can’t help feeling like she’s used to add adolescent color to Van Sant’s high school setting, and then perforated like a flesh-and-blood prop. I love Elephant, but I still wish it did better by its ill-fated characters.