Clarke's final film, specifically about sectarian executions in Northern Ireland in the 1980s but open to any number of interpretations, is forty minutes of people getting shot to death. Eighteen separate execution-style slayings are presented one after the other in rigidly formalist style. There is no story, no plot, no musical score, and no information provided about which side the killers or victims represent. Natural sound is used, and there is no dialogue, with the exception of a scene in which the assassin, coming upon his victim and another man playing soccer, joins in on the soccer game for a few minutes before taking out his pistol and shooting the victim. In this sole example, the dialogue is heard from a distance and indecipherable, excepting when the victim screams, "Shit," and tries to run away. Each scene follows a basic template. The assassin is shown walking to his destination, the victim is encountered and killed, and the assassin walks back to his getaway car. The scenes of walking and the executions are filmed with Steadicam. These scenes of intense physicality and momentum are alternated with fixed-camera, motionless tableaux of several seconds in duration that establish the location (gas station, factory, home, soccer field, warehouse) and show the dead body and its position immediately after the shooting. In exaggerated stylization so perfect for the film's tone that it only heightens the realism, the killings are carried out in isolated, empty landscapes. Factories, warehouses, gas stations, and city streets are empty of anyone but the killer(s) and victim(s). This lack of drama adds to the film's impact and power, creating a wasteland of inevitable, pointless death carried out for no discernible reason by and on anonymous entities. The film's intended political impact may have dulled with the decline in tit-for-tat slayings in Northern Ireland, but its emotional impact, that much stronger for leaving emotion out of the film thereby leaving it up to the audience to provide it, can't be dulled. The film exists outside of time, an eternal nightmare loop with no exit.
Gus Van Sant named his equally excellent film "Elephant" in homage to Clarke's. He also borrowed Clarke's use of extended Steadicam shots of people walking down hallways and corridors.
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