"Gerry," a film in which director Gus Van Sant returns decisively to the indie roots he seemed to have abandoned after his 1997 hit "Good Will Hunting," will drive some audiences crazy, and inspire in others a kind of guilty rapture. This movie, which stars Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, is a perverse, poetic nightmare about two nameless guys who get lost in the desert, wandering through unfamiliar, dangerous terrain until their nerves and minds snap. Visually gorgeous and as opaque as smoked glass, "Gerry" is done in languorous takes that unwind like a snake uncoiling. But in this case, the snake bites; there's a shocker ending.
Van Sant is one of the most unpredictable American filmmakers, and there have been very few American movies that are told like this, with such minimal dialogue and exposition, such eerie imagery, such a constant flouting of movie narrative "rules." It's definitely one of the strangest films ever made by a major U.S. director - yet I liked it. The guys never reveal their names. They both call each other "Gerry," but that's obviously just a personal riff, since "Gerry" is also their personal slang for "screw-up." The two seem like college buddies, slightly arrogant middle-class kids involved in a mildly homoerotic relationship. Gerry 1 (Damon) has the trim bodylines and smirking, boyish grin of a smart-alecky jock, and Gerry 2 (Affleck) is softer, clumsier, with more imagination and less self-assurance.
We first see them driving out into the desert in long, wordless takes that immediately establish the film's moody, hypnotic tone. Later we see them striding cockily away from their car and into the sands in search of something they describe with blas¿okiness as "the thing." Somehow missing their mysterious objective, they run back with reckless abandon - and suddenly they're lost. They remain that way through much of the movie. As the Gerrys trek through a series of landscapes that keep shifting like vast mirages - the movie was shot in places as various as Death Valley and the Argentine pampas - we gradually see them as oddball American strays, stranded in hell without compass or canteen. But their situation is only partly funny; it's also terrible and scary. Death haunts every move.
The script was written by Van Sant and cast as they went along. Damon and Affleck created the weird lingo and inside jokes from their own private language, and despite the fact that the movie gives us so little information - nothing of their past history, little of what they're really thinking - they usually seem real. Affleck seems loose as ashes, and Damon gives his role a cold, bristly narcissism, a brutality that keeps edging closer to the surface.
Some scenes - like the bizarre comedy sequence with Affleck stranded on a rocky spire and Damon trying to talk him down, or Damon's arcane monologue about ancient Thebes - are deliberately theatrical. Others, like the long wordless treks through the sand, have a cinema verite imagery and rhythm. The conventional wisdom on "Gerry" is that it's a non-narrative picture, but that's partly wrong. Van Sant's film is both surreal and realistic. There's actually more likelihood that something like this could happen in real life to characters like the Gerrys than what we see in some contrived, cliched movies out today.
Yet "Gerry" still seems infernally strange and almost mystical. Backed by a haunting Arvo Part score, the movie was shot in an experimental style that apes the bleak, enigmatic long-take films of Hungary's Bela Tarr ("Satantango"), Russia's Andrei Tarkovsky ("Stalker") and Italy's Michelangelo Antonioni ("Red Desert"). Van Sant, like them, uses unbroken camera takes, poetic visuals and real-time duration to mesmerize the audience and make oblique comments on the malaise of modern life.
The style is exotic, but the imagery is familiar. The desert has long been a symbol of danger and trial in American movies, most obviously in Von Stroheim's "Greed" and John Ford's Monument Valley Westerns. Even the plot line and relationship here are somewhat familiar: the nerdy guy (Affleck) and his callous jock friend (Damon) plunged into an inferno and revealing their true characters.
Van Sant is one American filmmaker who intrigues us because of his willingness to take dangerous chances - and his willingness to fail with them, as he does in his absurd 1998 frame-for-frame remake of Hitchcock's "Psycho." I wouldn't want to see another Van Sant "Psycho" or another "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," but in "Gerry" he's gotten into richer territory. Though he's copying movies again, he's also connecting more strongly to the real world of his actors and settings, delving into the kind of edgy, overtly or covertly gay terrain that's preoccupied him since his much-admired low-budget 1985 debut "Mala Noche." "Gerry" is the kind of film you might have gotten if Irish absurdist Samuel Beckett were assigned to write a buddy picture, took the last half half-hour of the silent "Greed" as his model and then handed over the script to Tarkovsky or Tarr.
Although "Gerry" is the kind of picture from which people walk out in droves, muttering, I liked it, partly because I wasn't stranded in such radically unfamiliar territory. I know the film's sources. Casual moviegoers may enjoy it, too, if they follow a simple rule: Stop looking for the way out and let yourself get lost.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Directed by Gus Van Sant; written by Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, Van Sant; photographed by Harris Savides, steadicam by Matias Mesa; associate editor Paul Zucker; music by Arvo Part; produced by Dany Wolf. A THINKfilm release; opens Friday, Feb. 28. Running time: 1:43. MPAA rating: R (language).
Gerry 1 - Casey Affleck
Gerry 2 - Matt Damon
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.