Runstedler’s DVD Pick of the Month: Elephant (1989)

I was so impressed by the style and technique of Gus Van Sant’s 2003 film Elephant that I dove into the depths to see what inspired him to make a film like this in this particular way. In doing so, I discovered Alan Clarke’s masterpiece short film Elephant, which was released in 1989.

Alan Clarke died relatively young at the age of 54, and his filmography is mostly comprised of TV films he did, most of which are controversial and fierce indictments of the social system. I’ve enjoyed his other works immensely, including The Firm, Made in Britain, and Scum. Clarke’s film Elephant was written and released when the Troubles in northern Ireland were at their peak, and his tracking shots along long, labyrinthine corridors capture this sense of paranoia quite well.

The short film itself is basically several sequences of plainclothes assailant(s) entering buildings and killing off a given number of people without mercy or explanation. The film relies on style and atmosphere over dialogue. The repetition of these unexplained is never boring though; rather, Clarke uses the repetition and unpredictability of these crimes to create an atmosphere. The hitmen, who change from scene to scene, are like sentinel beings, navigating their ways through buildings and the outdoors and executing their targets with extreme prejudice and without hesitation. The scariest aspect is the seemingly average appearances of the targets and killers in the film. They’re average joes, guys you’d see at the supermarket or next door or on the street. You never know who’s going to be next or who’s going to come after you, and that thought alone is most unsettling.

As with his other films, Elephant is brutal and uncompromising, and there are no interludes or solace to be found with this film. I almost felt like wearing a sweater when I followed the first killer down the cold, barren corridor, where he executes his target with a shotgun. It’s relentless but absolutely worth seeing. It depicts a time of peril where anyone could have a gun waiting for you underneath their sweater or cardigan. There’s no running from Elephant; we are forced to confront it in its entirety and bear witness.

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