Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 16, 2003 10:20 pm 
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O lost...

"Gerry" is rare movie that, if you yield to its spell, will provide a fresh, raw experience of a pure, simple, terrifying kind. For those who can't locate the patience and concentration "Gerry's" minimalism requires, it won't work worth a damn.

Two young men who call each other only "Gerry" (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck; the name's an in-joke word meaning "screw-up") get out of their car and go on a desert wilderness trail. There are no opening credits, only a long, long silent shot of the two guys in a middle-aged Mercedes driving impassively along the highway for miles and miles up to the trail. They leave their car and head off with no preparations, carrying nothing. After a time they know they've come to the trail, because they see a few people heading back on it. But instead of entering it themselves they decide to take a side path around it, just to be "different," go their own way, figuring everything is bound to go back around to "the thing" the same as the main path -- "the thing" the trail leads to.

After a while walking, not talking, they run, they play around a little, and they continue to go forward through brushland on their little personal side trail. Already we get used to how they walk, because that's all they do. They hardly talk any. When they do it's so natural and telegraphic we can barely understand them. So this is how they walk: Matt Damon seems to fall forward a bit awkwardly, big hipped, and his pectorals bounce up and down as he goes. Casey Affleck strides forward with more grace: he's thinner than the muscular Damon and at a distance against the sky he looks like a Giacometti striding sculpture.

After a lot of walking like this the two suddenly decide, with no discussion, to go back before they even get to "the thing," because it's just "a thing." Only they don't get onto the right path to return, because they never got to "the thing" that the right path leads to and from. And so -- they get lost.

As twilight approaches, the two young men wander through hills and plains. They stop and stare in all directions, and from the way they stop and stare we know they know they're lost. The vast landscape seems to have opened out and become beautiful, cold, and remote. They stride over small mountains, into sandy desert. Vast vistas of a terrifying beauty extend in every direction. We don't know where they're going and neither do they and this is all that happens and all that we see. We're alone with the vastness of it all and the lostness of the two young men, because they say so little: that too is terrifying.

The first night they build a fire of small branches and brush that burns brightly and they sit by it, like Keanu and River in "Idaho," and one of them tells a long story about a game he lost. At one point he jokes and says there's a man up high a short distance off staring at them. It's not so funny because everything is blackness beyond them and they're lost in this great desert wilderness. They smoke cigarettes. They have nothing to eat or drink. There's no knowing how far they are from their car.

The next day is interminable. They agree to "scoutabout" on separate small mountains in different directions to see what they can see. Their plan as before is hasty and confused. They see nothing but vastness in all directions. Casey Affleck yells at Damon from a big rock he's scrambled onto. He's too high up to jump safely off and for a long time he stands up there and they talk about what to do to get him down without an injury that would finish them. Damon gathers dirt in a shirt and dumps little piles of it in a soft mound as a bed for Affleck to jump onto. It's very slow. We're in real time here for sure. Not much talk happens. They're serious. The moment is excruciating. Finally they're satisfied with the dirt mound and Affleck jumps and he lands unhurt, instead of twisting his ankle or hitting his head on a rock and killing himself as it looked like he might do.

At some point if you are staying with this action and this huge landscape, two elemental, lifelong fears begin to be awakened in you: the fear of getting lost and the fear of abandonment. The two Gerries are well and truly lost, and there's some danger that one will abandon the other, by mistake, or on purpose. Having lost their way they could easily lose each other.

Their (improvised) conversation is the laconic and impulsive talk of close friends (as the two actors really are), and in it there's an element of macho dare which, added to growing fear and anger, threatens to become a lethal mixture.

Nature's lovely when your car's at the end of the trail you're on and you know where food and water are. When you're lost and so exhausted and thirsty you've begun to hallucinate and you can't think straight any more, nature menaces you and mocks you. And this is where "Gerry" very quickly takes us and keeps us throughout its short but palpable length.

Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly described "Gerry" as "Andy Warhol meets Ansel Adams meets Blair Witch Project meets Beckett," and his remark is a wise one. The dialogue is improvised and boring and slow as among non actors, images are worthy of the great landscape photographer, the use of nature to terrify has the economy of "Blair Witch," and the laconic plodding is like a millennial endgame by the great Irishman and follows his rule: less is more. These allusions are needed, because "Gerry" is either a failed art piece or an epic statement. We need some guidelines to decide.

Economy requires us to participate. The two Gerries tell more by what they don't say than by what they do. They don't say they're tired or thirsty or scared. They don't tell us about themselves. One may be stronger than the other, but not much: they're both "Gerries," and a "Gerry" is a goof-up. This absence of anecdotal chatter helps us identify with their experience. The sympathy we develop makes the ending deeply shocking.

Yes, this is like Beckett: "Gerry" jumps from the trivial and humiliating to the epic and tragic in a minute. As in Beckett, the two characters are like active and passive versions of one self, nagging each other, jogging alongside each other mindlessly and doggedly. There are many moments of tonic (but also difficult, unfamiliar, scary) silence and stillness in the movie, only mildly mitigated by the music of Arvo Pärt. By the end the two men's faces are harrowing to look at. It's as if they're not only well beyond exhaustion into hallucination but there's horror and madness in their sweaty sun-blotched faces. "Gerry" deeply scared me without even seeming to try. It was very courageous of Gus Van Sant to undertake this project, which redeems him of past missteps and reminds us of the poetry and unique vision of his best work.

March 7, 2003

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