Desert hearts: like his earlier My Own Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant’s Gerry invites us to watch hunky young stars do mystifying things. – movie review
Gerry * Written by Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, and Gus Van Sant * Directed by Gus Van Sant * Starring Matt Damon and Casey Affleck * ThinkFilm
The traffic toward the exit doors was brisk and bumptious throughout the premiere of Gerry at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. A few who made it as far as the end credits registered their disapproval with boos; still others tittered with disdain and clucked things like “My eighth-grade nephew could have made a better movie!”
My first impulse was to feel sorry for the speaker’s nephew, who had to be in school while his pea-brained uncle got to go to glamorous parties in Park City, Utah, and bad-mouth Gus Van Sant’s visionary new movie. Then I felt dismay for the wired state that high-decibel commercial filmmaking has brought us to. Put your average moviegoer in front of an ancient Buddha in a Burmese rain forest for two hours, and he will write home about how transforming the experience was. Put him in front of a contemplative movie, and his head will pound with epithets involving relatives.
In place of sacred statues or temples, Gus Van Sant gives us great expanses of deserts in all their extremes: bushy, sandy, rocky, billowing
with sagebrush, encrusted with snow. Flung into this labyrinth of nature are two guys taking a hike. They call each other Gerry (an all-purpose euphemism for “fuckup”), but otherwise we know nothing about them. They communicate in a terse shorthand that connotes a shared history; the tension in their faces makes us want to follow them. It doesn’t hurt that they are played by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, who wear the sort of could-give-a-shit casual clothes that amplify their sex appeal.
Leaving their car by the road, the friends seek some desert landmark they refer to as “the thing.” When it begins to get dark and they still can’t find “the thing,” they decide to turn around and go back. But they can’t find the path. They realize they are lost. Trying to get un-lost, they get more lost. Then seriously lost.
That’s it. The whole enchilada. Damon and Affleck: walking, traipsing, trudging, stopping, building a fire, resting, regrouping, walking some more. The exchanges are minimal, picking up from previous conversations they apparently had about a game show or some computer game Affleck was immersed in back home. Significantly, that game is about conquering Thebes: What little is shared between the men is in the Boy Scout lingo of the alpha male; calling to each other from separate peaks, they lay claim to “my mountain” and “your mountain.”
The crawling spectacle that is Gerry is the defeat of this cocksure masculinity under the fierce, unyielding hand of nature. You don’t watch this film so much as bear witness to it. Using the magnificent vistas of Death Valley and Argentina as backdrops, Van Sant stalks and encircles his actors in long, unbroken takes that are held several beats longer than you think you can stand. We experience something akin to what the characters do: an entrapment within the infinite.
Until a climax that is at once confusing and heart-stopping, the friends never touch or betray affection directly. The sensuality of Gerry is in the love affair Van Sant’s camera is having with the bashful and beautiful Affleck, who yearns to be embraced and protected against the elements–and is left, in the final count, begging.
Stuart is film critic and senior film writer at Newsday.
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