In an America where every surface seems paved with gas stations and Wal-Marts, Gus Van Sant's film Gerry seems almost romantic. It presents a vast, consuming American landscape where one can still get lost.
But an America of wide-open spaces symbolized in the limitless asphalt of the highway soon gives way to an all-consuming nothingness. In this anti-road movie, there's a limit to how far the heroes can travel. Gerry is, in essence, a dead-end road movie.
This is a bare-bones tale of two lost dudes, Gerry (Matt Damon) and Gerry (Casey Affleck), who drive a vintage Mercedes out into the desert to take a wilderness hike. When they stray from the path, they can't find their way out of the wild again.
Winding deeper and deeper into the landscape, the pair trek across a changing landscape -- a nearly biblical vista of jagged rocks and mountains as far as the eye can see -- through scrub brush, then miles of white sand. In one scene, a dust storm rages around them and tumbleweeds fly like frantic kernels in a hot air popper. By the film's end, they have reached a water-deprived person's hell -- a salt flat that crunches with a cruel insistence beneath their hiking boots. In one 360-degree camera pan, Van Sant surveys Affleck seated in the midst of this emptiness as hot tears cascade down his cheek.
The pair initially devise strategies for coping with their dilemma. They each scramble to the top of individual mountaintops in a "high rock scout-about" where they shout minimalist banter like:
Gerry is in some ways a very realistic re-creation of the guy dynamics that might arise in a situation of intense crisis where extreme muteness and stoicism settle in. It seems entirely credible that these guys would sweat over tactical details like the best place to rendezvous after a "scout-about." One could conceivably die of thirst while arguing about how best to avoid dying of thirst in these kinds of male endgames.
And despite a fair share of strained artfulness in this very freeform fugue, Gerry is not as rotten and ill-conceived a film as it first seems, though it's not some great metaphysical masterwork, either. The repeated money-shots of Mother Nature's cloud patterns and sinister beauty, for instance, are often just tedious, pretentious filler -- a way of suggesting Big Ideas without the work. When Van Sant brings in a doom-laced musical score at the film's second phase to ram home the dire situation of his protagonists, he concedes any ground gained by subtlety to emotional overstatement.
What dialogue there is in Gerry is sub-minimalist. The pair talks briefly about an episode of "Wheel of Fortune" and then about a D&D-style role-playing game. Experience is for these two, therefore, largely passive. Their incoherence is conveyed through the shambling dude-speak of Beavis and Butthead, laced with an "ah, fuck it" worldview. Gerry is not especially deep, but it is telling.
The one consistent conversational gambit within this absence of words is an improvised but believable language of extreme sports and military slang involving "scout-abouts," "dirt mattresses," or of being "rock marooned."
Both Gerrys seem well-versed in the language of the outdoors and survival, but they're dead in the water when it comes to actually employing strategies to save their lives. If Van Sant makes any point, beyond the sensory one of the agonizing frustration of being lost, it's about a certain strain of guy-wisdom that puts a premium on authoritatively stated guesswork and copiously annotated secondhand knowledge.
In a real life-or-death situation, that kind of knowledge tends to break down. Gerry seems to be about a strutting, athletic, Abercrombie and Fitch ideal coming to terms with limits to its powers. With his toned, hunkoid body cutting into his Gap-khakis, Damon is an American icon of fitness and good looks that have atrophied from lack of real road tests. Ultimately, his Soloflexed ruggedness can't beat the monumental head-thump doled out by Mother Nature.
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