The Elephant King
By Neil Norman
Have you ever wanted to travel to a faraway exotic place? Just leave all the troubles of your day-to-day grind behind and go on a magical walkabout that will give you energy to drive your soul and life experience? Well that is somewhat of the gist of this film.
Seth Grossman, NYU Grad and, Writer/Director of The Elephant King, dazzles the audience with his first feature. He delivers a picture that is a beautiful homage to the country of Thailand. It is also a compelling emotional drama with characters that you empathize for. The film works on many levels with great symbolic and thematic depth.
When the film opens we see an underwater PoV shot of the unlikely event of an elephant swimming in a pool. Unlike on land, the elephant seems graceful and moves fluidly as it swims. The head credits roll and we contemplate this ethereal image.
We first meet the main character Oliver Hunt, played with a haunting geeky subtlety by newcomer Tate Ellington, in the dish room of a restaurant. His brother Jake, played by another first-timer feature actor Jonno Roberts, calls him at work from Thailand, feigning a family emergency just to say, “Happy birthday asshole.” This is the beginning of many signposts that show the nature of their relationship.
Oliver is very socially inept. Think a younger Forty year old virgin without the hipness. He is an aspiring writer and dishwasher (even though he tells his mom that he is a busboy) at a local restaurant that still lives at home with his parents even though he looks to be at least mid-twenties. Ellen Burstyn plays the worrywart mom Diana with who is concerned with her oldest son Jake coming home and her youngest’s seeming difficulty with finding a girl. “Did you take a shower today?” mom asks Oliver when she finds him hunched over the computer working on his writing. The scene in which Ollie scares away a female dinner date that his mom has set up is funny and painful at the same time. Josef Sommer plays the happy-go-lucky father Bill, who gazes at Thai girls on internet porn sites, trying to relive his youth. Older brother Jake is an anthropologist who went to Thailand on a research mission and then loses himself in the expatriate lifestyle, spending the fraudulently attained grant money to do it with.
After Oliver tells him of a failed suicide attempt that put him in a mental facility for two weeks, Jake pays for a plane ticket for Oliver to visit him in Thailand. He hopes to wake his brother from the funk he is in and wants to teach him how to live and have fun like he does. The problem with that is that Jake seeks his fun without attention to basic responsibility and he doesn’t care about the consequences of his actions. Mom beseeches Oliver to bring his brother back so he can face responsibility. Oliver agrees to although he really wants to go abroad just to escape his mundane life.
When he gets to Thailand Oliver is still somewhat of a stick in the mud. He wants to sleep off his jet lag, but Jake won’t have it so they hit the town. Jake plies his little brother with prostitues (unsuccessfully) and ecstasy (successfully) finally getting Oliver to loosen up a bit and enjoy the night life. He meets Lek a beautiful Bar Girl/student and hits it off with her. After the long night of partying, Jake buys an elephant from a passerby and they ride it in the early dawn hours and later bring it back to the hotel. The elephant is a symbol for mental strength in Eastern culture and it is an applicable motif for both Oliver and Jake’s struggle to become balanced.
Oliver gets too close to his Bargirl friend and falls in love with her, with disastrous results. We also get to explore his relationship with his brother Jake, which is somewhat responsible for his socially awkward personality. I won’t give away any more of the plot, but suffice to say that it is interesting and has a surprise twist at the end. Every character in the film seeks redemption, but you will have to watch it to see if they find it.
Grossman writes a poignant story and creates characters that are multidimensional, helping the audience to care about what happens to them. There are many layers to this complex, emotionally deep film.
The cinematic beauty of this film is one of the most amazing aspects of it. Excellent lensing by DP Diego Quemada-Diez and shot selection by Grossman really help the film shine. The exotic locale is captured perfectly and there is a nice juxtaposition between exquisitely composed “tourist” shots and realistically gritty depictions of poverty or decay. There were so many great shots in the film that I started writing ones down that really captured my eye.
Here are a few of them:
Kickboxing Rings and fights, interspersed throughout the film.
A bevy of blank-faced prostitutes, all clad in yellow, sitting behind a window on display, ready for selection.
Live fish and eels for sale in the market.
Lanterns floating up into the night sky on a Thai Holiday.
A reflection of a Neon star sign caught in Jake’s eye after he is KO’ed in a match.
A random shot of a three-legged dog.
The soundtrack and score of the film, with original music by Adam Balazs is also very intoxicating. It is a nice blend of traditional Thai music and quirky karaoke/covers of classic rock songs. There are also a couple of cool songs by the band Yo La Tengo.
Go see The Elephant King! It is the best film I have seen at the festival so far.
Neil Norman is a freelance writer and a graduate of the University of Central Florida. Neil also works on independent film productions.