Gerry (2001): Van Sant Experimental Film Starring Matt Damon and Casey Affleck

Sundance Film Festival, January 2001–After reaching the nadir of his career with the pointless remake of Psycho, followed by mainstream Hollywood fare, Finding Forrester, an old-fashioned star vehicle for Sean Connery, Gus Van Sant goes back to his independent roots with Gerry.

A visually compelling road movie, Gerry recalls in several ways his most distinctive work, specifically My Own Private Idaho.  In its rigorously austere artistry, Gerry is minimalist film that carries itself mostly through its awesome, often transcendent visuals and sounds. The film represents a reunion for Van Sant with Matt Damon, after their collaboration on Good Will Hunting, and it offers a good role for Casey Affleck.

The narrative is slight, marked by sparse and sporadic dialogue, even by standards of experimental indies. Hence, Gerry comes across as a semi-academic film that will be embraced by film scholars (particularly semiologists) and cerebral, fringe audiences seeking non-traditional fare. The film, which received its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, should travel the global festival circuit, where it’s bound to please avid movie lovers, before getting a limited theatrical release by an entrepreneurial, risk-taking distributor.

Pushing 50, and at a midpoint of his career, the ever-unpredictable and immensely talented Van Sant has made a film that at once signals and benefits from what’s obviously an artistic crisis and need to revitalize his creative juices. Having gone the commercial route beginning with Good Will Hunting, Van Sant has decided to make a radical departure with Gerry, a film that’s just as innovative and fresh as his first works (Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy), albeit in a very different way.

The central premise, which is replete with complex symbolic and metaphysical meanings, is rather simple. Two young men, both named Gerry (Damon and Affleck), go on a hike in a far remote desert (the film was mostly shot in Death Valley, California), that puts to test their identities, intimate camaraderie, and ultimately, their very existence, since the trip forces them to come to terms with the brutality of nature and its elements and the most basic survival instincts, due to lack of food, shelter and water.

In the first long tracking shot, the camera follows a car from behind as it rides in an isolated road, before switching angle and presenting the viewers with the faces of the two protagonists. Violating every rule of classic narrative cinema, Van Sant shrewdly and deliberately avoids providing any clues as to who the characters are, what’s their background, motivation, or value system.

It takes a long time before any verbal communication takes place between the two guys. This verbal minimalism continues throughout the picture, forcing the viewers to speculate about the protagonists at their trip begins to go awry before reaching its tragic but extremely logical and emotionally satisfying denouement.

Though there was a blueprint, the screenplay, credited to Van Sant and his two actors, feels improvised, and for the most part rings true, in the sense of what the Gerrys talk about, at the rare occasion when they choose to interact, makes sense, reflecting their concern with dehydration, which escalates, and the fear of getting lost in the wilderness, with no traces of the highway and parking spot, where they had left their car.

Despite the strong physical presence of Damon and particularly Affleck, Gerry is very much an auteurist director’s film, one that employs to a marvelously resourceful effect the basic syntax of film language, especially intriguing, ever-changing point of view, and the mixture of long, static takes with medium-range shots. Cerebral critics will get a kick out of observing how Van San utilizes and manipulates cinema’s two most distinctive dimensions: Space and time. Discerning viewers will find themselves speculating throughout the film about the distance and angle from which the Gerrys and the vistas are presented.

Perhaps most impressive of all is Van Sant’s stubborn refusal to grant his actors close-ups, which is Hollywood’s most common device of eliciting viewers’ emotional identification with a story’s central characters, and a way to display the stars` screen presence. One can count on one hand the number of close-up in Gerry, most of which appear toward the end of journey, though there is not a single mega-closeup.

The variable elements in Gerry are the landscape, and the positioning of the two characters, singly and jointly, against it. While the changing landscape, magnificently presented at different times of the day (and night) enriches the film visually, it also presents some problems due to the fact that about one third of the movie was hot in Argentina, but then, due to worsening climate conditions, the crew moved to California’s spectacular Death Valley.

The other variable dimensions are the film’s ever-changing mood and tone, which get progressively darker and somber. Some viewers may find the second reel particularly entertaining due to its eccentric humor, which derives from a revelatory shot, in which Affleck is atop a single, isolated cliff, whereas Damon is placed below him, on the ground, waiting and preparing for him to jump off the cliff. It’s in these segments that Gerry recalls works by silent clowns, such as Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and comedies by French auteur Jacques Tati.

In its good, resonant moments, Gerry comes across as a stark existential fable, very much in the tradition of Samuel Beckett’s plays, specifically Waiting for Godot. Like Beckett’s (anti) heroes, the two Gerrys are clowns, seeking meaning for their routine existence, while utterly lost, both literally and figuratively, in the wilderness.

Early on in his career, Van Sant was justifiably labeled as the American Jean Genet, the French enfant terrible man of letters. In many significant ways, both thematically and philosophically, Gerry fits into the entire oeuvre of Van Sant, who has devoted his career to what can be described as odysseys of misfits and outcasts that explore the most bizarre yet random nature of life. Gerry is not as lyrical or fanciful as My Own Private Idaho, arguably Van Sant’s masterpiece, but like that 1991 seminal indie, it centers on two the changing relationship between two “deviant” personalities.

Gerry pays homage to such seminal figures as Hungarian filmmaker and theorist, Bela Tarr, Belgian experimental director Chantal Akerman, and celebrated Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami (whose Taste of Cherry) won the 1997 Cannes Palme D’Or. Visually, Gerry is also influenced by Italian master Antonioni and Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos (Landscape in the Mist, Eternity and a Day), whose films are odysseys of one kind or another into the countryside of bleak Greek existence, burdened by the past. In its rigorously austere, utterly controlled artistry and cool Brechtian distancing–the film is devoid of facile emotionalism–Gerry recalls Angelopoulos’ work. The movie is necessarily languid and preoccupied with the duration and composition of shots. The shifts in perspective, the progress (or lack of) of the journey (depending on how looks at it), and the movement all result in a movie that serves as a metaphor for understanding self and other.

Though favoring alterable camera movement and long takes, Gerry differs from Agelopoulos’ work in its acting style, an American addition to what’s mostly a European art film. Van Sant’s actors are not as studied as those of the Greek director, and their line-readings are not as Bressonian in their lack of inflection. The whole film is handled with a tactful obliqueness that does credit to the director’s humanity. As he showed in Drugstore Cowboys and other films, Van Sant never remains too far outside his spectacle to cut to the heart of the drama.

Gerry contains some beautifully realized images courtesy of lenser Harris Savides. In one mesmerizing sequence, the camera tracks the two Gerrys as they walk toward the horizon. The sequence is set at that crucial moment when darkness turns into dawn and the rising sun literally assumes its place in the universe with its gradually blinding light. In this, and other moments, Gerry is deeply personal and poetic in ways that few American movies have been, past or present.