Not Entirely Lost: "Gerry"

Let’s get this straight; just because Gus Van Sant’s done a daring, experimental, weird film doesn’t mean it’s going to be great. Likewise, when he turns in a mainstream studio movie like “Finding Forrester” or “Good Will Hunting”, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s totally betraying his wild indie roots, or that it’s gonna suck, either (for all its flaws, I liked “Forrester”). Yes, “Gerry” is a radical departure from everything he’s done, but is it really more audacious than trying a shot by shot remake of Hitchcock’s most famous work (“Psycho”) or adapting an inadaptable Tom Robbins novel (“Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”)?

In “Gerry”, two men (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) drive out to the middle of Death Valley, take a nature hike, and get lost. It’s Van Sant’s stab at good old postmodern minimalism, more extreme than Antonioni, not as severe as Chantal Akerman. Dialogue is rare, and mostly unintelligible; the lengthiest narrative stretch finds Damon relating an episode of “Wheel of Fortune” to Affleck. Scenes extend for ten minutes and beyond; the opening shot of the two men driving, driving, driving... in silence amidst Arvo Part’s stark, icy piano score immediately sets the overall tone and pace.

Damon and Affleck seem like ill-advised choices at first (though thank Gus it’s Casey and not Ben); if Van Sant had used unknowns, he’d have bypassed that whole aura of “Let’s see Matt and Casey do an “avant-garde” film and get lost in the desert!” But as “Gerry” progresses, especially as time passes and the duo gets more desperately lost, do you appreciate how much they carry the film. Their presence is apparent even when rendered (pretty often) as miniscule dots in massive, endless landscapes. One of the main reasons to see “Gerry” in a theater (while you can) is, of course, Harris Savides astonishing cinematography (reminiscent and worthy of Kiarostami’s films), but the film would just be a travelogue if we didn’t care about the two lost men. Their struggle isn’t dramatized or stylized but made very real by lack of action or conflict. They’re only left to contend with nature, a fight they cannot win through physical or intellectual prowess, but only through luck.

That said, even knowing what to expect from it, “Gerry” is still often excruciating to endure. Some scenes go nowhere and seem pretty lame, particularly Affleck’s attempt to jump off a very large boulder that seems impossible for him to have climbed up on in the first place. Van Sant also tends to favor aimlessness over formalism, not leaving room for a payoff that a film with a similar feel but more rigid structure like Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman” achieves when one ritualistic element is suddenly, excitingly out of place. But if you can get past this, and give yourself over to the film’s unorthodox rhythms (especially in its superior second half), “Gerry” turns hypnotic and appropriately haunting, and has a splendidly ambiguous ending. It’s not an artistic achievement on par with “Russian Ark”, but it is what it is, and it begs to be experienced, at least once.