“Gerry” begins with the camera trailing a car as it meanders along a desert highway. The shot is several minutes long and is not obscured by credits, setting a hypnotic tone for the rest of the film. At the end of the road, two men (Affleck and Damon), who both call each other “Gerry,” get out and begin to hike into the wilderness. Their first dialogue exchange refers to an intangible “thing” they will find at the end of the trail. After a spontaneous footrace, they opt to forget “the thing” and head back, but, having stepped off the main path to avoid the tourists, they find that they have lost their way and are alone in the wild.
What follows is truly mesmerizing. As the boys wander the hills and desert, the pace of the film evokes real time. The camera follows them in a tracking shot, for minutes at a time, as they trudge across the land. A static long shot lingers on the stunning vista as their two tiny figures move across the frame. One seamless scene is so patient and deliberate that it actually captures a sunrise from starry darkness to first morning light. The film's greatest feat is a 360-degree pan of the desert, the hot sand stretching for miles, with none of the production's equipment trucks in sight.
Shot in Argentina until cold weather forced the cast and crew north to Death Valley and the salt flats around Salt Lake City, “Gerry's” setting, captured gorgeously by cinematographer Harris Savides, is undefined, almost sci-fi in its varied haunting landscapes. More subtle yet equally remarkable is the picture's sound design, from the spare piano and violin duet that accompanies the opening scene of the film to the sounds of nature--water, rain--with industrial overtones. In one scene, Damon and Affleck are shot in extreme close-up, only their bobbing heads filling the frame as they march along, the crunch of their feet on the gravel morphing into an almost musical rhythm.
About 80 percent dialogue-free, “Gerry,” in the moments when the two characters do speak, relies on the personalities of Damon and Affleck to carry it. In one prolonged scene, Affleck's Gerry finds himself “rock marooned”--stranded on the top of a large boulder. The pair debates the best way for him to get down, settling on building a “dirt mattress,” and their somewhat silly repartee builds amusingly to the gasp-inducing conclusion.
Eventually, exhausted and hallucinating due to dehydration, the men collapse. The film's enigmatic climax is fodder for endless philosophical discussions about nature's superiority to mankind and its merciless effect on the human psyche.
A film that polarized audiences at the Sundance Film Festival, “Gerry” is not what the average moviegoer is going to expect from a pic by the team that directed, wrote and starred in “Good Will Hunting.” Fortunately, nascent distributor ThinkFilm had the prescience to pick it up, and cineastes' thirst for some originality from their indie films will be quenched. Starring Casey Affleck and Matt Damon. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Written by Casey Affleck, Matt Damon and Gus Van Sant. Produced by Dany Wolf. Drama. A ThinkFilm release. Rated R for language. Running time: 103 min