Gerry, a movie about two guys lost in the wilderness, is a little like watching the desert dry: a long, slow process without a false moment in it, but without enough interesting ones, either.
Coming from Gus Van Sant, a onetime arthouse director who's spent the past several years goin' Hollywood (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester), Gerry feels like an experiment. It's composed mostly of long takes, including what must be a half-hour total of nothing but the two characters walking across the desert landscape in real time.
The two guys are played by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck (who co-wrote the screenplay with Van Sant). They have only a few conversations, and that's counting two monologues, one about a TV game show and another about a fantasy role-playing game (in which Affleck recounts conquering Thebes). Both men go unnamed -- "Gerry" is their noun and verb for "fuck-up."
With its wide vistas, sometimes-intricate camera moves and occasionally striking widescreen imagery -- the roiling clouds of time-lapse skies -- Gerry is a little bit gorgeous visually. In one scene, Damon and Affleck shuffle as silhouettes across salt flats in the predawn dark, the screen hypnotically brightening from black to gray to silver to blue. Literally by nature, the humor is dry; one sequence (again composed almost entirely of a single unbroken shot) depicts Damon helping Affleck escape a tall rock where he's stranded. It ends with a perfect punctuation, at once surprising yet completely anticlimactic.
In press notes for the film, Van Sant says that with Gerry he sought to abandon the bang-bang imperatives of modern narrative filmmaking. He's certainly done that. The trouble is that the filmmakers he cites as influences tend to have more to say. Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies and the late Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, for instance, embrace the contemplative long take, too. But those films are also pregnant with symbol, harshly poetic commentaries on Tarr's Hungary and Tarkovsky's Soviet Union.
Despite what some are sure to say about it, however, Gerry is about something. Plangently, it dramatizes the limited range of male emotional dynamics: Damon and Affleck's characters have neither more nor less to say to each other after they're lost, or even when they might be dying, with only slivers of action and dialogue to explain their relationship.
But while the rigorously observational Gerry fairly revels in not telling us anything just for the sake of cluing us in, neither do we really have much reason to care. All those long shots are nice in concept, but Van Sant holds most of them half again as long as necessary to make any imaginable point. You're left with something to ponder, a semi-scrutable objet d'art; the memory of the sounds of heavy breathing and the crunch of every stone underfoot; and the nagging suspicion you've been cheated. * *