Mal Dia; Van Sant’s Spellbinding “Gerry”
by Patrick Z. McGavin
Editor’s note: indieWIRE originally published this review in January 2002 as part of our Sundance coverage.
Gus Van Sant‘s experimental independent feature “Gerry” is a spellbinding work, open to surprise, possibility and wonder. A meditation on friendship and survival, the movie revolves around a human quest of feeling and searching, though what grounds the work is its striking presence, authority and spectacular imagination.
Against the strains of a plaintive, spare piano, “Gerry” opens with a striking shot of a Mercedes moving through an evocative and dreamily stylized landscape. Van Sant shrewdly alters the physical relationship between the camera and the car, producing a hypnotic and convulsive rhythm. The unbroken shot finally cuts to a medium close-up of the two occupants inside the car; it’s Van Sant’s first attempt at forging an emotional bond with his characters.
The movie’s extreme formalism is deployed partly to animate the consciousness of the two friends, Casey Affleck and Matt Damon. They are both named Gerry, and together, they set out on a perilous hiking expedition that they abruptly cancel after an ecstatic run through the knotted and unfamiliar landscape. Suddenly disoriented and unable to recover their initial tracks and locate their car, the two friends wander in the implacable, expansive space. If their disruption begins on a note of grim determination and absurdist flair (there is a bleakly funny extended moment with Affleck trapped on a rock), the movie collapses into frightening terrain, with a mounting sense of dread.
The story concerns the friends’ efforts to return to their own civilization, one considerably less foreboding than the cold and unbending environment in which they are currently trapped. Van Sant and the two actors worked on the script, which is completely devoid of psychology, personal motivation, and emotional detail. The movie is a revolt against the standardization of plot and the crippling predictability of narrative. Liberated from the constraints of exposition, the movie is a forceful examination of the physical and occasionally transcendent potential of cinema.
Slow, difficult, frequently mesmerizing, “Gerry” invites complicated and even contradictory responses. It registers something deep and palpable, a transcendent sense of the body, nature, rapture and defeat. Van Sant and his excellent cinematographer Harris Savides accentuate the immensity and scale of the landscape in order to underline the characters’ fragility in comparison the cruel disposition of their circumstances. Visually, the movie is loaded with spellbinding imagery: the preposterously still early morning blue light; their bodies aligned in tight formation; the awesomely beautiful shots of the sun.
“Gerry” is one of the most abstractly beautiful movies an American filmmaker has ever attempted — an audacious wielding of the formal daring of Bela Tarr, Abbas Kiarostami and Chantal Akerman reimagined within a more recognizable American idiom. Tarr’s astounding seven-hour “Satantango” and his luminous “Werckmeister Harmonies” occasioned Van Sant’s experimental aggression. Tarr’s formal influence on “Gerry” is self-evident. Van Sant reproduces three shots from “Satantango,” including an intricate, beautifully modulated tracking shot that follows Damon across a desert expanse, then reverse pivots and locates the trailing Affleck. The relationship of the actors to the landscape also suggests Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy and, more recently, “The Wind Will Carry Us.” The movie’s intricate sense of process and duration also recalls the work of Belgian filmmaker Akerman.
Shot in 24 days, (the first third of the film was shot in Argentina until weather conditions forced the filmmakers to relocate to Death Valley), “Gerry” draws on the purely elemental. If Kiarostami’s films are moral inquiries about the nature of being and Tarr’s movies are black existential comedies, Van Sant creates his own vernacular of despair and rebirth, along with a quest for origins and self-realization.
Compositionally, Van Sant and his cinematographer, Harris Savides, conjure tension, mystery, and hallucinations from the variegated surfaces, disfigured landscapes, twisted rock formations and ominous cloud patterns that float through the diaphanous sky. “Gerry” returns Van Sant to the position he occupied a decade ago after the artistic and commercial failure of his madly ambitious and deeply cherished “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” which had moments of polish and assurance but few breathtaking leaps of faith. “Gerry” is a powerful and pungent reminder of what he is capable of.