Xavier Dolan proves once again that the world revolves around him (and that’s a good thing) in the quiet Canadian drama Elephant Song (2014). The wunderkind is once again the secret spice that brings the best bout of other ingredients, allowing what was originally shaky and well-trod become something watchable and – dare it be said – intriguing. While the rest of the cast are respective standouts in their own rights, it is Dolan that is worth the price of admission. It’s been two years since he has had a meaty acting gig (2013’s Tom at the Farm); here again, he proves he’s got credibility all over the place. Its Christmas Eve in blustery Canada.
The location: a psychiatric hospital in the mid-1960s. The players: Dr. Toby Green (Bruce Greenwood), Nurse Susan Peterson (Catherine Keener) and patient Michael Aleen (Dolan). Green spends Christmas Eve day locked up in his colleague Dr. Lawrence’s (Colm Feore) office, with Michael, trying to suss out details of where Lawrence may have disappeared. As might be expected, Michael is less than accommodating in this venture. Rather, he chooses to toy with Green. It soon becomes evident that Michael knows more than he initially lets on and soon Green finds himself embarking on mental gymnastics to try and stay ahead of Michael’s tricksy web of lies. Given the powerhouse trio of Greenwood, Keener and Dolan, its hard to believe this is the film we find them in. While there’s nothing particularly wrong with Elephant Song, it quickly becomes evident this is the kind of indie that needs to have the bar of expectation kept low.
Yes, its a carefully-plotted drama, sometimes tipping over into thriller territory with its minute augmentations of suspense at precise intervals. But the majority of the time, its merely a serviceable plot. Audiences have seen these psych ward head-trip yarns spun time and time again. These are stories that rely on a narrator who is inherently unreliable, an upstanding antagonist made rube and a few put-upon supporting characters who muddle until the end-credits. This trio deserves better. Naturally, Greenwood and Keener make the most of their roles – as they are wont to do given their stellar track records of old. They help keep this drifting bit of cinema tethered to the shore, channeling the salt-of-the-earth qualities that are their dramatic inheritance. But it is Dolan that shines. Stepping from behind the camera and back into the second pair of shoes he inhabits so comfortably – as actor – he is a powerhouse. Equal parts enigmatic, fragile and unwieldy, Dolan is a tour de force that helps to elevate this into something worth sticking with. A well-done, if not particularly memorable, drama, Elephant Song may be small in scope but it is big in its vision. It is a film that will keep your curiosity piqued, delivering on it premise to complete satisfaction.