Gus Van Sant’s movies are always, in some way, about movement. It takes different forms: in time, in space, as an illusion. Movement that takes you nowhere, movement that transgresses or even transforms corporeal limits, movement that pulses, like blood. Consider his reimagining of narcolepsy as transportation in My Own Private Idaho (1991), or the junkies’ jittery road-tripping in Drugstore Cowboy (released in 1989, still the best movie about addiction, ever). Or the accelerating celebrity that carries away Nicole Kidman’s weathergirl in To Die For (1995).
This focus on movement has led Van Sant to many sorts of explorations, and some courageous or inexplicable choices (the profound desire in his first film, 1985’s Mala Noche; the big thumbs in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues ; the giddy Hanson music videos), as well as some disappointing detours (Psycho , Finding Forrester ). No matter his direction — and more than a few observers have complained that his Oscar-nominated Good Will Hunting (1997) turned his head around — Van Sant remains that rare filmmaker willing to take an unexpected curve. Even better, when he does, he leans into it.
This might be one way to describe Gerry: it leans into a curve. By turns daunting and absorbing, the film is about movement that seems hopeless, that takes you nowhere, that’s increasingly slowed but also increasingly urgent. It’s about loyalty and strength, masculinity and fear.
The plot, such as it is, concerns two friends (played by co-writers Matt Damon and Casey Affleck). After a brief, half-hearted search for what they call “the thing,” the guys become lost in a desert (the film was shot in Argentina, Death Valley, and Utah’s salt flats). Each calls the other “Gerry,” and each uses the term “gerry” to denote a fuck up (as in, “I thought maybe you’d gerried the rendezvous”). Their friendship is assumed, as if they’ve known one another so long that they needn’t finish sentences or even really start them. They understand one another.
But they also don’t. Too similar and too isolated, they drift together and apart, attuned and detached in time. This is the story of two boys, each caught in his own stoic resistance, his own hostile universe. Gerry traces their gradual, necessary coming to terms with what they can never know, and what they must.
The camera first picks up their dusty Mercedes driving along an infinite highway. With Arvo Pärt’s superbly mournful “Spiegel im Spiegel” on the soundtrack, the car keeps erratic distance from the camera, at times far ahead and at others, just in front. Minutes into this take comes the first cut, to a conventional driving shot, the principals’ faces through the windshield. They don’t speak. Cut to their point of view, the road stretching far into the distance. Still, they don’t speak.
The first non-musical sounds are the crunch of tires on dirt, the car doors opening when they arrive at their destination, perhaps planned ahead. From here, they walk through scrubby brush, following a mostly indiscernible “path.” They stop for a moment, passed by another, faceless party; Gerry/Affleck wonders about the direction they’re headed. Gerry/Damon is confident: “Everything’s gonna lead to the thing.” They walk again. They run a little, laughing at their own competition, and soon collapse, breathing hard. At this point, they decide to turn back (“It’s just gonna be the fucking thing at the end of the trail”), whereupon they realize they have no idea where they are. “Is this the way we were going?”
Some of this dialogue is improvised, most of it scripted, and the bulk of the movie features no speaking whatsoever. To an extent, the characters’ apparent friendship explains this lack of talk. (That, and Van Sant’s fondness for silent movies.) They start off chatting about seeming nonsense, picked up mid-thought so that you’re left to catch up, or not: an episode of Wheel of Fortune; a computer game involving vassals and horses. After walking for days without food or water, They end up barely speaking: “I hate you” or “Fuck you.”
All this sounds rather existential: some reviewers have compared the non-plot, unfavorably, to Beckett. Van Sant says that he’s looking to recover a kind of lost art of filmmaking, built on long takes, spare editing, and mobile compositions that ask viewers to put ideas together. He derogates easy target MTV, and cites as influences Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris), Béla Tarr (whose Sátántangó runs seven hours), and Chantal Akerman (D’Est).
Whatever Van Sant had in mind, Gerry is both less and more. At one point, they split up, seeking better views on different hilltops. When Gerry/Damon returns, Gerry/Affleck is anxious; he’s “scrambled” to the top of a rock, and can’t get down: “I’m fuckin’ marooned,” he wails, looking for all the world like he’s stranded on a set from the old Star Trek. Gerry/Damon sets about the practical business of figuring a way for him to descend. The camera maintains its distance, both characters small in the frame: the rock looms over Gerry/Damon, holds Gerry/Affleck immobile. All around them, time passes and space rages.
At another point, bereft and at a loss, Gerry/Affleck frets, his back to the camera. When he turns back to Gerry/Damon, he finds no solace: “Stop cryin’, man.” If the ostensibly weaker character succumbs to hopelessness, to fear and death, the ostensibly stronger character shapes his responses to these emotions differently: he sets his face in stony resolve. In dreamy, dreadful synch, they move with one another, as in a remarkable tracking shot, close on their profiles, coming in and out of frame, in and out of step. They keep walking. It’s all they have.
The Gerrys traverse landscapes ranging from barren brush to sand dunes to blasted-out craters, thinking they’re headed north, to the highway, where cars are moving — just over the next mountain, the next plateau, the next hill — the highway exists, they know it. Yet it eludes them. Are they walking in circles? Are they seeing one another or mirages?
Strikingly shot by Harris Savides (with steadicam work by Matias Mesa), the film demands patience, repays with disquiet. Ravishing and reductive, it can seem self-indulgent and willfully strange: oi, here comes Van Sant’s return to arty, low budget aesthetics. Audiences thus far have been split, hating or loving the film. That the Gerrys don’t appear to recognize their dire lostness until late in the proceedings makes them baffling, frustrating, and sometimes irritating. Are these boys so unable to understand themselves? So strapped for language that they’re unable to share even the most basic suggestions for survival? Are they so frightened, so fragile?
Stark and inscrutable as the landscape they traverse, the Gerrys don’t invite identification. They walk. And walk some more. Their last movements together have them scuttling, hardly seeming to move across what seems an almost lunar landscape, eerie, SF-ish soundtrack percolating behind them. The sun is just beginning to come up, and as the light changes, their silhouetted figures take on a series of hues, all grim. The camera is, in fact, tracking them, but they are moving so slowly, in such little bitty steps, and the distance between them remains so steady, that they look as if they’re not moving at all.
It’s as if the space around the Gerrys has become time, and vice versa. “We haven’t seen any of the fucking stuff that we’ve seen,” they worry. They are, in these few endless minutes on screen, the absolute abstraction, incarnation, and idealization of movement in film — illusory, unstable, flickering.