Very few discussions of Alan Clarke’s films don’t contain at least some variation on the phrase “gritty realism.” Never one to shy away from blunt depictions of man’s capacity for savage violence, his work paints a particularly ugly picture of social conditions in Great Britain and Ireland circa the 1980s, a decade when Thatcherism and the Troubles loomed large. Over the course of Elephant‘s 39 minutes, a Steadicam calmly observes 18 senseless, contextless murders of anonymous victims by anonymous killers. It is the penultimate work in Clarke’s filmography, followed by the feature-length The Firm that same year, and then the filmmaker’s death in 1990.
Although Alan Clarke can’t really be considered an avant-garde filmmaker, Elephant‘s deprioritization of conventional narrative suggests that he wished to craft films that were daring in a formal sense, as they were visually, politically, etc. It’s a lot to sit still for, but this is likely Clarke’s purest realization of a cinema that is as brutally fatiguing to endure as the events that inspired it (in this case, the Troubles and the sectarian killings that accompanied them), which seemed to be his goal all along. Gus Van Sant’s Columbine-informed “remake” seems like a candy-colored after-school special by comparison.