Mr. McFarland driving erratically down a residential street on the way to drop off his son John. John notices damage to the car and realizes that his father is drunk, so John instructs him to move to the passenger seat and let him drive.
Alex and Eric are bullied at school by the so-called jocks, one of whom diverts a teacher and throws a spitball at Alex during science class. Later, Alex and Eric are shown at home ordering weapons from a website and receiving a rifle in the mail. While Alex is taking a shower, Eric gets in with him. He claims that he has never kissed anyone before, and the two kiss. The two formulate an attack plan. The next day, Alex and Eric prepare for the shooting, then make their way to school in silence in Alex's car.
After arriving at school, Alex and Eric encounter John outside and tell him to leave, as some "heavy shit's about to go down". Realizing what is about to happen, John attempts to warn others not to enter the school, to mixed effect as a few students listen to him but others, as well as a teacher, do not and enter into the building. He also tries to find an adult to get help from but cannot. The two gunmen then enter the school, and after their plans to blow up parts of the school with propane bombs fail, begin shooting indiscriminately. A friendly student named Elias photographs them entering the library where they open fire, shooting several students, including a bespectacled outcast named Michelle and presumably Elias.
Realizing that the gunfire is real, students now begin to panic, while teachers attempt to quickly evacuate the building; an African-American student named Benny silently walks the halls and helps some students escape to safety with aplomb while nearing Alex. John's worthless father shows up and can offer no consolation to his devastated son as they see the school burning and hear gunshots and screams. The two boys separate, continuing their killing spree. Alex enters the bathroom where three popular girls named Brittany, Jordan and Nicole are, presumably shooting all three. The school principal, Mr. Luce, cornered by Eric in a hallway, begs Eric to lower his weapon and talk to him, but Eric yells, "I ain't putting shit down!" and fires at him. He does speak to Mr. Luce, however; while he is doing so, he turns without warning to see an approaching Benny and shoots and kill him before Benny could stop Eric's attack. Eric turns back to Luce and warns him to take heed of what's happened from bullied students and initially lets Mr. Luce go, before smiling evilly and changing his mind by firing several shots down the hall that strike and kill the principal.
Alex enters the cafeteria, which is strewn with overturned chairs, backpacks, several dead bodies, and numerous abandoned half-eaten lunches, and sits down. Alex picks up a cup from an abandoned lunch and casually drinks from it. Eric meets up with him, and they have a brief conversation, which ends when Alex shoots Eric in mid-sentence. Alex leaves the cafeteria, showing no emotion over shooting Eric, and discovers Carrie and Nathan in a freezer. He tauntingly recites "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe" to them to decide whom he should kill first. The film then cuts to credits leaving the ending ambiguous.Alex Frost as Alex, the more intelligent of the two killers, implied to be the one in charge. He is an accomplished but frustrated pianist and sketch artist. He and Eric kiss before the massacre, both citing the fact that they had never been kissed.
Eric Deulen as Eric, a slacker, Alex's friend, and the other killer. He is less intelligent than Alex, and Alex is obviously aware of this. He is shot in the chest by Alex near the end of the film, while talking about whom he had killed earlier.
John Robinson as John McFarland, Alex's friend who has trouble at school while managing his alcoholic father. Alex warns him to stay away from the massacre.
Timothy Bottoms as Mr. McFarland, John's alcoholic father.
Matt Malloy as Mr. Luce, the principal of the school. Cornered by Eric, who briefly spares him, he is presumed dead after being shot several times.
Elias McConnell as Elias, a photography student building his portfolio with portraits of other students.
Nathan Tyson and Carrie Finklea as Nathan and Carrie, a popular lifeguard/football player and his girlfriend. Alex taunts them with Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
Kristen Hicks as Michelle, a nerdy girl ashamed of her body. The film follows her through the locker room and into the library where she assists. She is the first to die during the massacre.
Brittany Mountain, Jordan Taylor, and Nicole George as Brittany, Jordan, and Nicole, three bulimic girls who talk incessantly, gripe about parents, and squabble with one another.
Bennie Dixon as Benny, an athletic student who helps Acadia escape out of a window before approaching Eric. He is shot and presumed dead.
Alicia Miles as Acadia, a close friend of John and a member of the Gay-Straight Alliance. She is assumed to have a panic disorder which causes her to freeze and break down in times of fear or stress. During the shooting, Benny discovers her standing still in a classroom and helps her escape from the school and the shooters.
The film began as a television film that Van Sant had intended to make about the Columbine High School massacre; eventually, the idea of a factual account was dropped.
Elephant was filmed in Van Sant's hometown, Portland, Oregon, in late 2002, on the former campus of Whitaker Middle School (previously Adams High School). Whitaker was closed by the Portland Public Schools in 2001 due to structural problems and safety concerns with the school building. The Whitaker/Adams building, completed in 1969, was torn down in 2007.
The script was "written" to its final form during shooting, with cast members improvising freely and collaborating in the direction of scenes.
JT LeRoy (a pen name for author Laura Albert) is credited as an associate producer for the film.
The title Elephant is a tribute to the 1989 BBC short film of the same name, directed by Alan Clarke. Van Sant originally believed Clarke's title referred to the parable of the blind men and elephant, in which several blind men try to describe an elephant, and each draws different conclusions based on which body part he touched, and Van Sant's film uses that interpretation, as the same general timeline is shown multiple times from multiple viewpoints. Later, Van Sant discovered Clarke's film referred to the phrase "elephant in the room" (the collective denial of some obvious problem). Also, Gus Van Sant named Chantal Akerman's film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) an inspiration.
Clarke's film Elephant reflects on sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Van Sant's minimalist style and use of tracking shots mirrors Clarke's film.
A drawing of an elephant as well as an image of an elephant on a bed throw can be seen in Alex's room while he plays the piano.
The film competed at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2003. Van Sant claimed audiences in attendance at Cannes argued over its quality, leading to altercations.
Elephant premiered in North America at a benefit for the Outside In youth shelter at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, in Portland, Oregon, on Saturday, October 4, 2003, with several teenagers who appeared in the film in attendance. The film was released for incremental distribution by HBO in 38 theaters in the United States, beginning October 24, 2003.
The film opened in a limited release in North America on October 24, 2003 in 6 theaters and grossed $93,356 with an average of $15,559 per theater ranking 36th at the box office. It ended up making $1,266,955 domestically and $8,745,067 elsewhere for a total of $10,012,022, above its $3 million budget.
Elephant received mainly positive reviews from critics and has a score of 72% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 156 reviews with an average rating of 7.1 out of 10. The critical consensus states "The movie's spare and unconventional style will divide viewers." The film also has a score of 70 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 37 critics indicating "generally favourable reviews".
Roger Ebert praised the film and gave it 4 out of 4 stars writing "Gus Van Sant's Elephant is a violent movie in the sense that many innocent people are shot dead. But it isn't violent in the way it presents those deaths. There is no pumped-up style, no lingering, no release, no climax. Just implacable, poker-faced, flat, uninflected death. Truffaut said it was hard to make an anti-war film because war was exciting even if you were against it. Van Sant has made an anti-violence film by draining violence of energy, purpose, glamor, reward and social context. It just happens. I doubt that Elephant will ever inspire anyone to copy what they see on the screen. Much more than the insipid message movies shown in social studies classes, it might inspire useful discussion and soul-searching among high school students."
The Red Lake shootings that occurred in 2005 was briefly blamed on the film, as it was viewed by gunman Jeff Weise 17 days prior to the event. A friend of Weise said that he brought the film over to a friend's house and skipped ahead to parts that showed two students planning and carrying out a school massacre. Although they talked about the film afterwards, Weise said and did nothing to make anyone suspect what he was planning.