I have no business praising this film. I should have hated it. I should have stormed out of the theater in protest, vowing that I never again would support a film by Gus Van Sant. Even now, my review should begin by calling attention to how maddening, pretentious, dull, and pointless Gerry is. Such things might pass muster in film school, I would say, but how dare you subject a paying public to this trash. I could have easily said these things, yet I won’t. In fact, against all logic and reason, I will say without apology that I loved this film. Embraced it. You might even say I was moved by it. Gerry is, quite simply, unlike any film I have seen in years. And for once that is a good thing.
It does not require an extensive summary to give you an idea of what this film is about. Two friends (Casey Affleck and Matt Damon) drive to a remote location to go on a hike through a desert landscape. They park their car, decide to avoid the trail (too many people), and embark on a journey to see “the thing,” which is, thankfully, never defined. They walk, exchange a few insignificant words, and continue walking. Then they get lost. They are reluctant to admit it, but it is clear that they have no idea where they are going or even how to get back to their car. More walking ensues, with even less dialogue. We get endless shots of aching beauty, compounded by the isolation of the two men. And there’s your film. They walk around, yet do not scream and cry at their plight, always “certain” they will get back. After all, how can a person get lost these days, what with cell phones, instant communications, and global tracking systems to follow our every move? Yet, they never verbalize their fear. We know what they might be thinking, so there is no real need to say it out loud. More to the point, it is far more realistic that two friends, lost in the desert, would do everything possible to avoid talking about being lost. That they don’t talk about much of anything is also in line with reality. A lesser film would have had them chatting endlessly – about how much they mean to each other, pop culture, whatever. It is one of the film’s most striking insights that when we are afraid and uncertain, we usually retreat inward.
While the entire film is bold and lacking in any commercial appeal (not since My Dinner With Andre have I seen a film less marketable), there are many shots that defy description because of their audacity. One in particular shows the two walking side by side, shot only from the waist up. The camera never leaves their faces, and we hear only the crunch of sand and dirt beneath their feet. For eight full minutes, the camera holds, the two do not speak a word, and yet, somehow, it works. There was a bit of nervous laughter in the theater as the shot neared the five minute mark, and I must admit that I smiled myself. Just when I thought they would cut away, the shot continued. Normally I would bash such a scene as self-indulgent bullshit, yet I was transfixed. Why?
Simply put, there is nothing my intellect can tell you about why I responded so deeply to this film. For over an hour and a half, I was never bored, never frustrated, and throughout, my mind raced with semi-coherent ideas about what it all meant. Even now, I am not sure what it is I saw, but as a purely visceral experience, I was overjoyed. Perhaps I sensed for a moment what it must be like to take chances as an artist, to fully not give a damn about what others thought or believed. Perhaps I somehow experienced the existential loneliness of the characters; connected with them as symbols of our fruitless walk through the endless confusion of modern life. Perhaps I wanted to feel for just a moment, while comfortably safe and alive in my theater seat, what it must be like to watch the minutes tick away from my life, as my existence is reduced to pure survival; a life without distractions and the buzz of culture. To have everything clarified, simplified, and reduced to what is, after all, the entirety of our beings – the ability to perceive and feel the living world around us. Have I been smoking grass, you might ask?
While I can understand why someone would hate this film with every fiber of their being, I will not apologize for what it meant to me. I have no doubt that each person will react differently, and it is not my place to judge if you experience part or none of what I did. Gerry is a film about ideas, yes, but more than that it is a film about the very nature of being alive, turning off interpretation and letting sound and image wash over you without analysis. Such discussions might take place in the theater lobby afterwards, but as it plays, it is best to let it all remain a mystery.