I'm going to say right up top that it's impossible to talk about this movie without giving anything away so if you haven't seen it yet, I would advise you to stop reading now! This Gus Van Sant pic first sparked my interest when one of the hosts of the Filmspotting podcast named it as their favourite film of last decade. Lee also said that it was an unmissable movie.
In typical Lee fashion he told me I was not allowed to read the blurb or the tag line on the front of the dvd case. It was pretty hard to not read the tag line as it was on the front cover. It read 'An ordinary high school day. Except that it's not' which I thought was suitably vague. It's only now that I've seen the movie that I realise how perfect that tag line is.
When the movie first started I thought that it was just an ultra realistic version of the movie American Teen. The film just seemed to be following the everyday lives of high school students, some kids just happened to be more interesting than others. They even had the archetype characters of the jock, the arty kid, the geek girl, the popular girls and the outsider/loners. But then we see an image of two kids walking in to school dressed in camouflage and armed with two massive bags and everything suddenly takes a chilling turn. What's great about that moment is that the shot literally is a flash which made me ask myself 'Did I really just see that?' Which then made me watch the movie more intently to figure out if that moment really had the gravitas that I was giving it... which it definitely did! The film is shot in such an ultra realistic way that you really do feel like you are a student inside that school, running away from the gun men, or even scarier that you ARE the gunmen. I've never admitted this before, but when I was in high school I can remember being conscious of the fact that I never wanted to ruffle anyone's feathers because at the back of my mind I had a secret fear of someone terrorising the school Columbine style and I didn't want to be made a target. In other words I wanted to be the blonde kid in the movie. So the experience of seeing this movie was like watching my worst fear being played out in front of me and I was paralysed to stop it. I love the ambiguity of the ending also. It's not like we're watching a news broadcast of this event, we don't get to know the repercussions for the killers which is an uneasy feeling to be left with.
The film is so cleverly shot, manipulating the concepts of time and perspective. At first you think you are watching the same scene again and then you realise you are watching the scene from the character that was perhaps running by at that moment or in the background.
Gus Van Sant employed real high school kids for this film just as he did with one of his later films, Paranoid Park. This approach of using 'real people' is extremely effective, for the most part. But it can also lead to a few hiccups for example one of the 'popular girls' is very stereotypical and over the top in her mannerisms and facial expressions. She's essentially 'acting' too much which negates the whole purpose of using real people. This is also the case with a similar character in Paranoid Park (the girlfriend character if you remember). But such things can easily be forgiven by the sheer boldness and bravery it must take in using such an unusual technique.
This film is not for the faint of heart, but is truly a work of art.