The first contestant for the new show "What Not to Hair."

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Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" (IMDb listing) is an odd little tone poem. Part psychological horror film, part concept film, it dashes in for a jab at your jugular and politely bows out in just over 80 minutes. The film's greatest strength has to be the way its structure serves the tension of the plot, simple and straightforward as it is. For those of you who aren't familiar with the storyline, it's a fictionalized account of a Columbine-style incident at a high school in Oregon. Van Sant approaches the obvious climax from the perspectives of several different characters before delivering the harrowing final blow. Like a Monty Python sketch that goes on so long that it stops being funny and then starts being funny again, "Elephant" ratchets the suspense to myocardial extremes, only to ease back and focus on characterization for a while before cranking up the goosebumps all over again.

The acting is all pretty good, the dialog incredibly believable (a rare thing indeed in movies whose biggest roles belong to teenagers). But it's ultimately the photography that punched my lights out. Harris Savides's camera roves just behind the shoulders of most of the students in the film, and for me, the first thing that came to mind was a video game. Van Sant and Savides were shooting this damn thing like a video game, which made perfect sense, considering the age of the characters in the film, but it wasn't until one of the two murderous youths was shown playing a violent video game on his laptop that I really felt I might be on to something. The game he plays is a 3-D shooter in which he simply follows innocent bystanders around and shoots them in the back. The student body doesn't realize it yet, but they are the flesh-and-blood counterparts to those graphical victims.

Is "Elephant" likely to change anyone's mind or prevent the next Columbine? Probably not. Van Sant doesn't offer an explanation for why these things happen once in a while. But his film does accomplish something that no news coverage after Columbine was able to do. It invites us to shut the fuck up for a minute and acknowledge the true horror of that day. It's not a film that tells us what to think. It's a film that asks us what we think. My guess is that if it has any credibility among teenagers, that's why.

Filmfodder Grade: A-