Reviewed by Ryan Gilbey
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.
Two friends, both named Gerry, follow a wilderness trail in search of what they refer to as "the thing". They soon decide to turn back towards their car, but become lost. The following day, Gerry (Casey Affleck) gets stranded on top of a rock, and must be coaxed down. They try to follow what they believe to be animal tracks. They improvise a map in the dust. They spend a further two nights in the desert. Without food or water, their health deteriorates. On the fourth day, they collapse. Gerry (Matt Damon) chokes Gerry, possibly accidentally. Finding a road in the distance, the surviving Gerry hitches a lift with a father and son.
After announcing himself as a unique voice with his first three films (Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho), Gus Van Sant has in recent years developed a sideline in ventriloquism. His frame-by-frame remake of Psycho was deliriously enjoyable, but he responded to its commercial failure with Finding Forrester, a rehash of his biggest hit, Good Will Hunting. The recent Palme d'Or winner Elephant borrows its title, its Steadicam wooziness and its dispassionate eye from Alan Clarke's 1989 television film. And now Gerry, shot between Finding Forrester and Elephant but shipwrecked by the demise of Film Four, arrives bearing the influence of Béla Tarr, as well as a 'thank you' in the end titles to that Hungarian auteur.
In preparation for this self-consciously arthouse project, Van Sant and his actors Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, who share co-writing and co-editing credits with their director, also swotted up on the films of Tarkovsky and Chantal Akerman among others. Fortunately Gerry is intriguing enough to survive the potentially damaging mental image of its makers lounging around chez Van Sant demolishing nachos and six-packs and picking through Stalker.
The picture can be read as a warning about the perils of improvisation a neat joke given how fruitful that method proves here. Two friends, both named Gerry, abandon their Mercedes to join a desert trail that they anticipate will lead them to "the thing". The first line of dialogue, after a menacing driving sequence that recalls other nightmares prefaced by road trips (The Shining, The Vanishing, Funny Games), cautions against departing from the beaten track. "Gerry the path," says one Gerry to his companion, who has strayed into the brush. When they decide to return to the car, they find the path has disappeared beneath their feet.
Studio executives will admire the brevity with which Gerry could be pitched think The Blair Witch Project at Zabriskie Point but little else. The film has all the narrative logic of The Exterminating Angel (1962), and is as oppressively agoraphobic as Buuel's film is claustrophobic; deep into their ordeal, Affleck even announces "I'm leaving," like one of Bu uel's deluded party guests. Despite being a two-hander, there is less dialogue than in the first course of My Dinner with André, and what there is remains predominantly absurdist. Affleck's campfire monologue that begins "I'd ruled this land for 97 years..." deserves to become a stoner classic, while oddball phrases such as "dirt-mattress", "shirt-basket" and "scoutabout" as well as the multi-purpose word Gerry, suggest mouth-watering fragments from a Martian vernacular.
Like their characters, the actors are working without a compass, with none of their usual charismatic tricks to rely on. Even their designer stubble exists only to measure time, like the vivid yellow star on Affleck's jumper which becomes increasingly dulled a reference to the treatment that Van Sant is doling out to his own 'stars'. Actors crave close-ups, but here the camera's attention becomes punitive, closing in on their roasted faces like a magnifying glass frying ants on a lawn. In the blurred or unsteady tracking shots, the two Gerrys become indistinguishable from one another, adding to the impression that, like the three Cissie Colpitts in Drowning by Numbers, they are separate facets of the same person. This orchestrated anonymity works wonders for Damon, whose charms have been all but exhausted. He has done nothing in his career as fine as the scene in which he weeps solemnly from behind an improvised veil.
In the absence of character arcs and story, the eye reads narrative and meaning into the landscape, photographed coolly by Harris Savides. It was a misjudgement to use time-lapse images of speeding clouds rolling in like smoke off Dr Jekyll's nightcap, when the picture already achieves disorientation by more furtive means. One of Van Sant's most effective methods is to allow the scenery to loom on screen long enough for its magnificence to be slightly depleted a mottled mountainside, bunched into folds and creases, comes to resemble a leopard-skin coat dumped on a bedroom floor.
The hazards of the open road have diminished since My Own Private Idaho, which ended with River Phoenix's Mike being driven off to a possibly unsavoury fate. Now it is the dawn that carries sinister connotations, bringing with it as much promise of obliteration as it ever did in any vampire movie. A protracted sequence of the two men plodding across salty plains in the half-light provides the most uncomfortable moment, and not only because Arvo Pärt's minimalist score has acquired some Eraserhead-style industrial chugs and echoes. That shot, gradually lit by an implacable rising sun, represents one of the few instances in cinema when you can find yourself recoiling from illumination, praying for the darkness to endure.
- Gus Van Sant
- Dany Wolf
- Casey Affleck
- Matt Damon
- Gus Van Sant
- Director of Photography
- Harris Savides
- Associate Editor
- Paul Zucker
- Arvo Pärt