39 minutes. 18 killings. 3 lines of dialogue. Alan Clarke’s Elephant is shark-simple in its relentless depiction of sectarian assassinations in Northern Ireland. It’s Bresson with guns, as a monotonous procession of shootings takes place with rhythmic repetition. A few shots establish a location into which a man will walk. He seeks out another man and shoots him. Then leaves. He doesn’t flee the scene: the drama of the murders produces no changes of pace or fluctuations of facial expression. We linger on a sullen corpse for a few seconds, then the process repeats again with a different shooter and a different victim. Occasionally the man we see turns out to be the victim, not the assassin. Occasionally, there is a second victim at a single scene. On one occasion there is a brief, mundane exchange of words. But for the most part, the formula stays the same throughout the film. Little attempt is made to exploit the format for a wide variety of murder methods – guns do the trick efficiently enough, thankyou.
The killings are covered predominantly with wide-angle lenses on a Steadicam. This gives the shooters a purposeful, inexorable force, and as superior field of vision, as they carry out their task. Gus Van Sant used a similar technique for his massacre-based Elephant, which takes its title from Clarke’s film, but there it expressed ineluctible lines of fate that would converge devastatingly at the conclusion. Clarke’s tracking shots are heat-seekers, zeroing in on a target with no meandering, accident or deflection. And there is no connection between them, no sense of a conspiracy being rooted out, or a ring being smashed, just a string of squalid slayings. You want to scour people’s faces for signs of remorse, conflict, fear or other emotional nuances, but these attempts will always be frustrated, either because figures have their backs to the camera, or because their faces are sternly illegible. This is as easy as getting out of a car. And then getting back in again. The victims are benign and ordinary in their shirts and woolly jumpers. Almost all die immediately, barely having chance to register more than a dumb recognition that there’s some guy at the door. They slump or fall like the overpacked shopping bags you put down when you get home.
Dennis Lim’s DVD review from the Village Voice puts it quite nicely, and uses most of the adjectives I wrote down in my notebook while watching:
Almost wordless and purposefully numbing, the film alternates between queasy motion (someone walks, walks, walks, and the Steadicam follows) and sickening stillness (someone is shot, and the camera likewise stops dead in its tracks). Clarke’s masterpiece, Elephant is detached and diagrammatic to the point of abstraction—it pares a cycle of senseless violence down to cruel, anonymous geometry.
Aside from the obvious shock value of seeing a set of killings that never coalesce into a narrative, there’s also a palpable sense of being kicked hard in the genres. Ouch. Isn’t TV drama, especially when its broadcast by the BBC, supposed to be a public forum for talking about political problems, current affairs and historical events? Isn’t it a way of making the news seem a bit more manageable, to situate it within a pleasingly contained, story-shaped vessel? Where is the context, the background, the psychological, character-developed, method-acted, micro-for-the-macro-allegorised, self-importantly-hyphenated drama of it all? That title comes from Bernard McLaverty’s description of “the Troubles” (itself an evasive, palliative descriptor) as “the elephant in the living room”, the enormous issue that people get used to and stop acknowledging. Well, elephant looks like the offcuts of a sanitised news archive, the deleted scenes of a war made to look like it wasn’t a war. It sounds like a trite concept, to show the human cost of conflict by excising everything else, but as a confrontational viewing experience it is a peerless pachyderm let loose in the lounge, refusing to play by genre rules: its perfect home, then, was on TV, becoming a cyclical installation piece in the corner of your front room.