April 3, 2003

Cornell Cinema

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Have you ever just laid back on the ground and watched the clouds fly by overhead? Sure you have, everyone’s done that. It’s an escape, a way of ignoring everything else going on around you and immersing yourself in beautiful abstract images while giving yourself time to think. This is exactly the kind of experience that Gus Van Sant’s mystifying experiment Gerry evokes.

Van Sant’s film takes two men named Gerry (Casey Affleck and Matt Damon) and throws them into the desert, where they promptly get lost and spend the rest of the movie, well, walking. And that’s it. The premise is of course ridiculously simple, and so is the film. Everything is intentionally vague and blurred. The two friends are going to see something they refer to only as “the thing,” and which they give up on seeing before they ever get there. These are anti-heroes worthy of the slacker generation, from their grunge dress to the slurred incoherence of their speech. For much of their trek, they’re completely silent, but their minimal dialogue is so spot-on realistic that it’s made even more effective by the paucity of conversation.

See, the thing about Gerry is that it’s not the kind of film where you can just passively sit and let the images stream by. The film invites you in with stunning imagery, it envelops you in its slightly surreal reality, but it also forces you to think. Shot in California’s Death Valley and in Argentina, the film makes the scenery as much of a star as its two characters: the camera lingers on long landscape shots for several minutes at a time with no other context. At one point, the sun rises in real time, slowly flooding the surroundings with eerie orange light, as Affleck and Damon simply stagger along in silence in the foreground. The film’s mood is slow and meditative — punctuated occasionally by bursts of dark humor — and if you allow yourself to get lost in it, it will be an immensely rewarding experience.

The philosophy behind Gerry — if indeed there is one — can perhaps be best summed up in the friends’ rambling dialogue. In one exchange, Affleck’s character gives a lengthy and hesitant account of a Civilization-type video game that he was playing; it’s so random, and Affleck’s performance is so sincere, that it winds up being one of the film’s funniest and most poignant moments. This kind of senselessness infects the movie from start to startling finish. In one of its best scenes, Affleck is trapped on top of a rock which, it seems, should have been impossible for him to climb up to begin with. What ensues is a lengthy scene in which Damon scrambles around trying to build a dirt mound for his friend to jump onto. The scene builds tension with this delay, but then completely subverts the previous ten minutes by making the actual jump last barely an eye-blink.

Like staring at the clouds, Gerry is by no means an action-packed experience. But its not an inert film, either. There is a genuine sense of tension and emotion built into its bizarre circumstances and oddly effective characters, and most of the film seems to work despite the relative lack of anything happening. The camera takes long, static pans of the scenery, showing time-lapse clouds rolling over mountains and wide desert vistas. As with looking at the clouds — as with, probably, walking in the desert — you have plenty of time, perhaps an uncomfortable amount of time, to be alone with your thoughts. What Gerry encourages, more than anything, is serious reflection. And certainly, this reflection can extend to questions of Van Sant’s own film, a contemplation of what this piece of art actually means, but ultimately the director is reaching for some far grander thoughts.

Van Sant has provided us with something of a blank slate, a raw sketch of the human experience to which we can add our own scribbled thoughts, dreams, and metaphors about mortality, friendship, and modern life. Not always easy to watch, and not always necessarily successful in its high-minded aims, Gerry is nevertheless a film that is very much worth seeing. It’s a trip unlike any other.

Archived article by Ed Howard