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The Columbine shootings continue to "inspire" Hollywood

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The feature films that followed Moore's coup tend to fall into two camps. They either focus on the killers as some inexplicable evil force, or on the aftermath of a school shooting, in which survivors search for solace and explanations. The champ of the killer portraits is Gus Van Sant's Elephant (2003), which borrows many details from the Columbine attack and weaves them into an arty bit of nihilism, complete with long, wordless tracking shots of students trudging down gleaming hallways and gazing up at empty skies outside.

Van Sant's Eric and Alex watch a documentary on Hitler and play first-person shooter games. They're ready to go out and kill everybody — and "most importantly, have fun," one says, a reference to a note left by Klebold — but we never learn why. (There's a scene early in the movie in which Alex is harassed in class, but it seems insufficient provocation for what follows.) Like Eric Harris, Alex quotes Shakespeare, taunts his prey and pauses mid-massacre to take a sip from another student's abandoned drink in the cafeteria. But ultimately, these ephebic murderers are pure ciphers; they have a homosexual tryst just before launching their attack, but it's more about shedding the burden of virginity than any true feeling. As the rampage draws to a close, one dispatches the other casually in mid-sentence, as if swatting a bug.

Even more disturbing, perhaps, and considerably less pretty, is Zero Day (2003), which is presented as a video diary left behind by school shooters Andre and Calvin, who dub themselves the Army of Two. The home-video footage is uncomfortably reminiscent of the basement tapes, but this army doesn't do much ranting or explaining; they seem to blend in all too well with their surroundings. "We see more than you do," one of the boys tells the camera, but much of what we get to see seems chillingly normal. Ironically, the final sequence of their suicides, shot as if taken by a grainy security camera, has been confused online with actual surveillance footage from Columbine.

If the shooter films come across as cold-blooded, those that focus on the aftermath of a shooting resemble somber but preachy after-school specials. Home Room (2002) offers Busy Phillips of Freaks and Geeks as a put-upon goth girl — and a message about not singling people out because they're different. The Life Before Her Eyes (2007) has the star power of Uma Thurman and Evan Rachel Wood, a message about survivor guilt — and a final plot twist right out of Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

Survivor guilt and bullying also provide the framework for April Showers (2009), written and directed by Andrew Robinson, a '99 graduate of Columbine. Tom Arnold delivers a surprisingly strong performance as Mr. Blackwell, a heroic teacher based on Dave Sanders, and some reviewers found the film quite moving, but it suffers from murky sound and an even murkier storyline, with many mawkish moments. Lifetime has its own prior effort at a hope-and-healing film, Dawn Anna (2005), an inspirational biopic starring Debra Winger as the mother of Lauren Townsend, the class valedictorian who was slain in the school library. But the best of all the aftermath movies to date may be a work of non-fiction, the 2011 documentary Thirteen Families, which follows the emotional journey of all the families of those slain at Columbine — and never once mentions the names of the shooters.

The latest entry in the Columbine subgenre is Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin — which, like Elephant, doesn't offer much accounting for the Bad Seed who decides to practice his archery on his classmates. (Even Kevin, who survives the attack, doesn't have much in the way of motive to offer: "I thought I knew," he says.) The movie is visually striking, with a fragmented, flashback-heavy structure. (There's something about school-shooting movies that invites a non-linear approach — probably so that the violence can be teased out rather than inflicted all at once.) But as in the Lionel Shriver novel the film is based on, it's a bleak business trying to figure out if Kevin is just born bad or a product of rotten mothering by Tilda Swinton's empathy-deprived character. By the end of the film, audiences may be wearing the same look of stunned stupefaction Swinton carries throughout the proceedings.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast