Gerry (2002)

Directed by Gus Van Sant

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Gerry is the first of Gus Van Sant’s “death trilogy,” preceding Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005).  Each film is a sparse retelling of a true event, an attempt to understand what may have gone wrong.  It’s an effort to find truth and meaning in things that don’t immediately offer any.  How did something like Columbine happen (Elephant)?  What were Kurt Cobain’s final days like?  And how did two guys just wander off and get lost in the desert?

Van Sant heard the real life story: Two friends got lost in the desert, and one killed the other.  That’s all he knew and all he went off of to make this heavily improvised film.  Like with the other two I mentioned, Gerry leaves you a lot of time to think.  The film consists of long shots, long silences and a great deal of contemplation.  It may have the desired effect on some while convincing others to check out halfway through.

Me?  I f*ckin’ loved it.

Gerry doesn’t tell us much about the two friends, both named Gerry (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck).  They drive in silence while Spiegel im Spiegel plays…

Just listening to that you get the idea that these characters are doomed, and looking at them it seems they might realize that too.

But this is just an ordinary day, an ordinary hike.  They venture off to see some sort of landmark but soon decide to find their own trail when they figure the landmark will just be full of tourists.

It’s not long until they are lost.

They behave how you or I might.  They’re not ready to believe anything is truly wrong, even when they pack it in for the night.  After hours in the desert we see another multiple minute-long shot of the two friends having the most mundane of conversations by a fire.  It concerns some video game, and it’s hard much to care about what either of them is saying.

But again, I never felt this detracted from the film.  The mundanity helps paint a picture of their lack of concern.  Later it will wane, and their desperation will win out.  It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this is.  They march on, somehow determined but only lose a bit of energy as time goes on.  The shots are so long and their behavior so repetitive that we get a little lost right alongside them.

The best scene, in my opinion, is one in which they reunite after a few hours on their own, having gone separate ways in an attempt to double their chances of finding any signs of life.  When one Gerry finds the other, he (Affleck) is stranded on top of a boulder, unsure exactly how he got there.  The other tries to help him get down, making a makeshift “dirt mattress” onto which he can jump and hopefully not break an ankle.  Because you’ve likely seen other disaster movies or heard stories of someone spraining an ankle deep into the wilderness, you have an idea of how this will play out, and Van Sant uses this to his advantage.  It’s a long but effective scene with a few unexpected laughs.

The most striking shot of the film is one in which the two Gerry’s stagger through the salt plains somewhere in Utah at dawn.  They move with small shuffles of the feet, each one looking like the silhouette of Christian Bale in The Machinist.  It’s a long shot, the camera steadily tracking the two men from the side, and you stare at the image for so long that it becomes almost biblical, some kind of fateful march through the desert.

Stylistically, Gerry is made up of long shots through a variety of desert landscapes and a strange use of lavalier microphones which accentuate the actors’ breathing and footsteps, offering a claustrophobic feeling even when they are small within the frame.

You get used to it by the end, but early on I was surprised by just how loud the characters’ labored breathing was and how in your face their footsteps were.  We’re made to feel what they feel, trapped in a sense, though at first this just felt like a case of poorly mixed sound design.

I’m not sure where they filmed Gerry, but its desert landscapes resembles areas of California, Arizona, Utah and maybe some other places.  We start in a hilly, foggy landscape dotted with shrubbery before heading to what looks like the outback of 127 Hours, then we make our way through the sand dunes of Zabriskie Point before ending on those wide open salt plains somewhere in Utah.

Gerry is haunting and thoughtful, or at least I found it so.  I also like the other films of Van Sant’s “death trilogy.”  They are morbid, almost more so than most horror films precisely because of how much they hold back.  Death looms in the distance of these films, partially because of what the viewer may know going in and because of how long those deaths take.  In each of these three movies there is a slow, silent buildup to what is made to feel inevitable.  I guess that’s like life, at least through some kind of single-minded way.

But I like what Van Sant is up to in these films.  They each look at the broad strokes of a true story, a friend killing a friend, a drug-riddled celebrity’s suicide and a school shooting.  These things have happened and continue to happen.  Some might see these films as sensational, a way of capitalizing on something horrible, but watching them you quickly see right through that.  If Van Sant’s films were really the clickbait some people make them out to be, then they wouldn’t play out so slowly.

He really makes you watch and listen.  If you take a look at these movies because of some morbid fascination, his patience asks you if you really want to see what’s in store.  The deaths that end these films aren’t exciting in ways movie deaths often are.  They are sad, quick, brutal and somewhere between gut wrenching and underwhelming.  They are facts of life in some way or another.

Up Next: Winter Light (1963), Elvis Presley: The Searcher (2018), Shoah (1985)

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