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Winner of the two top awards at the Cannes Festival, Van Sant's daring and inventive film is a fictionalised telling of the horrific events at Columbine High School. It plays out like a fly-on-the-wall documentary as the camera follows students through their day, circling back on each other as the students' paths cross in banal ways, adding to the ominous, foreboding tone. There's no explanation of the title (it refers to that huge thing in the corner we're afraid to talk about), and little actual plot to speak of. The film merely tracks a number of students up to the fateful moment when the first shot is fired. What follows is almost impossible to watch, and yet we can't turn away either, because it's far too important for us to at least try and understand.

Most actors use their own names. Frost and Deulen play the gun-obsessed teens, plotting their evil actions with almost clinical detachment as if it's a paintball game. Robinson is a friendly guy trying to cope with his drunken father (Bottoms) and the perhaps-imagined attentions of the school hottie (Miles). McConnell is a photographer, casually documenting life in the school. Finklea and Tyson are the cool couple wandering the halls; Taylor, George and Mountain are a trio of chattering gossips who get the film's best joke. And we also meet Hicks, an unconfident girl terrorised by her gym coach, and Dixon, a muscly boy who doesn't run from the gunfire.

This is one of the most realistic depictions of an American high school ever put on screen. Mostly because these are real highschoolers, not 20-something Hollywood actors. They're shockingly real; we can palpably feel their emotions--that complex mix of the excitement of learning and the agony of adolescence. And Van Sant films it with gorgeous cinematography in extremely long tracking shots that snake through the hallways with an unstoppable momentum. This is complex, lyrical filmmaking that takes the breath away and leaves us emotionally wrecked. There are profoundly important points made along the way (including the frightening ease of buying assault weapons online), but without heavy-handed moralising. And the way the camera approaches scenes from differing points of view is not only telling, but also builds the tension beautifully. In the end it might be slightly self-indulgent, but it's also haunting and devastating. And one of the most significant films of the year.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 30.Oct.03

dir-scr Gus Van Sant
with Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Carrie Finklea, Nathan Tyson, Jordan Taylor, Nicole George, Brittany Mountain, Alicia Miles, Kristen Hicks, Bennie Dixon, Timothy Bottoms, Matt Malloy, Elisa E Williams, Chantelle Chriestenson
release US 24.Oct.03; UK 30.Jan.04
03/US 1h28

A kiss before dying: Miles and Robinson.
23rd Shadows Awards

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send your review to Shadows... elephant Tom Woolley, Bradford, West Yorkshire: 3.5/5 "An incredibly haunting and unusual film. Beautifully shot with distinctive colours but truly horrific and almost unwatchable in places. The over-the-shoulder shots of students wandering through the halls are too long at times but do create a formidable tension that something terrible is inevitably going to happen. I think the title refers to the parable about three blind men asked to describe an elephant simply by touch, each man will come to a different conclusion - the man holding the trunk will think it's a snake etc. This is reflected in the film by the interlocking scenes when student's paths cross and adds another angle to the viewer’s perspective. One criticism is that the film didn't delve into the reason why the two boys wanted to massacre fellow students and teachers. Sure, they're bullied and misunderstood and play violent video games but seem to come from stable, cultured backgrounds. I would have appreciated more of an explanation." (27.May.05)
© 2003 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall