So, there's these two guys. And, y'know, they just walk. And walk
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Gus Van Sant's Gerry is not so much a road movie as an off-road movie, and it's hard to think of any film which so strikingly resembles a metaphor for the state of its director's career. Indeed, it's hard to think of any film-maker so badly needing to venture out into the wilderness. Van Sant began as a proudly marginal American independent, but since hitting pay dirt with Good Will Hunting, he has been largely content to take the mainstream dollar, reaching a nadir of complacency with the literary coming-of-age tale Finding Forrester.

At last, however, Van Sant is reclaiming his status as a hard case. This year, he vindicated himself spectacularly with Elephant, a detached meditation on the Columbine killings, which won the Palme d'Or in Cannes. It's tempting to think that Elephant might not have been possible without the drastic act of purgation that is Gerry. And Gerry itself would not have been possible if Van Sant hadn't experienced a sobering illumination watching the films of Hungarian director Bela Tarr.

Tarr, who made Werckmeister Harmonies and the seven-and-a-half-hour Sátántangó, specialises in slow, sombre films with minimal incident, shot in extremely long takes. In emulating him, Van Sant hasn't opted for half-measures: considerably less happens in Gerry than in most Tarr films. Gerry is quite some act of bravery, and it would have been no surprise if the studios had stopped returning Van Sant's calls. It's one thing for a film-maker with the executive clout of Steven Soderbergh to pay homage to both Tarkovsky and Resnais in Solaris, which at heart is still a glossy sci-fi romance. It's quite another to make a film as brazenly anti-narrative (some might say, anti-audience) as Gerry, even if it does have a marketable star in Matt Damon, light years here from the dizzy packaged pulp of The Bourne Identity.

The plot holds in a sentence: two young men, both apparently called Gerry (Damon and Casey Affleck, Ben's more affordable brother) go walking in the desert and get lost. And stay lost. They talk a bit, but not that much, the clouds shift, night falls, sun rises, and they're still lost. It counts as a major event when one man briefly breaks into a run.

Van Sant too has wandered off the map with no clear idea whether he'd find his way back, or what he'd find on the way, or indeed whether he'd find anything of interest. The writing is jointly credited to Damon, Affleck and Van Sant, so presumably most if not all of the dialogue is devised on the spot. In this sense, Gerry is partly an exercise in site-specific improvised theatre, no less than that other off-roader The Blair Witch Project.

Though not as committed to slowness as some of the art-cinema hardcore in Europe and Asia, Van Sant makes duration itself a tool. He makes us aware that we're watching over a length of time, yet time becomes disorientingly elastic: while we are conscious of the sheer stretch of individual shots - some up to seven minutes - we also lose a sense of how long the two men's odyssey lasts. Do they walk for a couple of days and nights? A lifetime? How long, for that matter, have we spent in the cinema? For some viewers, 103 minutes will slip by; others may feel they're in purgatory.

Space undergoes similar warping. The two Gerries start out on a clearly marked trail, ostensibly looking for some unspecified landmark. But once they leave the path, all landmarks vanish and the terrain shifts around them. One minute they're on a pebbly track, then on a vast white plain, then wandering among Saharan dunes. They're everywhere and nowhere, in an impossible geography created by Harris Savides's inhospitably gorgeous photography, and by sly editing: the film was actually shot in California, Nevada and Argentina. As the two men trudge on, the camera implacably stalking them at a distance, in glaring sun or stygian darkness, we often can't tell whether they're moving or standing still.

The strangest effects of the experience are on language, which is prone to bizarre, often comical, mutations. The word "Gerry", for example - we're never sure whether it's really both men's name, or a synonym for "dude", or an all-purpose signifier, as in "You gerried the rendezvous" or "So many different gerries along the way". Words fall into exotic combinations: there's talk of a "shirt basket", a "dirt mattress". When the boys chat by the fireside, the effect is like slacker Beckett: Affleck delivers a transfixingly bizarre monologue about playing an Ancient Greek fantasy game, drawling on about his conquest of Thebes. It's as if the duo are making a doomed last-ditch attempt to anchor themselves to human history before pitiless nature swallows them up.

What's most fascinating about Gerry is that Van Sant wanted to do it at all - to undertake this arduous pilgrimage, in honour of a form of cinema he loves. The result is a film that seems indifferent to whether it is seen or not: Gerry just is, like one of those works of landscape art installed at an unreachable distance from the nearest city. For Damon and Affleck, both of them engagingly calf-like and as blank as the desert itself, Gerry may have been an Outward Bound getaway from the mainstream, but for Van Sant it's considerably more. He's taking an all-or-nothing bet on whether he still has something to say and, perversely, doing it by effectively saying nothing.

Gerry is a film that allows for a much wider range of reactions than normal - you may be mesmerised, baffled, bored or infuriated, or write it off as Bill and Ted's Existential Adventure. All of these responses, I think, would be legitimate. Perhaps most curious, though, is that in taking his inspiration from art cinema at its most irreducibly European, Van Sant has made a landscape movie every bit as quintessentially American as a John Ford panorama of Monument Valley.