- The Washington Times - Friday, February 28, 2003

If anyone needs and deserves a hit, it's Gus Van Sant. After directing, early in his career, such daring, unsentimental indie successes as "Drugstore Cowboy," "To Die For" and "My Own Private Idaho," Mr. Van Sant has been stumbling lately. "Good Will Hunting" was mawkish, if popular. "Finding Forrester" was terrible. His "Psycho" remake was unforgivable.
I was rooting for him to return to form.
It is my duty, however, to report that while "Gerry" is brave, clever and interesting, it never quite achieves liftoff. It simmers for about an hour but never comes to a boil.
Its naturalistic photography is sometimes stunning, but so is Ansel Adams' and who wants to stare at a coffee-table book for an hour and a half?
"Gerry" is one brilliant failure, though.
Just so you know: It's boring. Pulverizingly, brain-freezingly, deliberately boring.
"Gerry" is a firm kick in the pants of Steven Soderbergh and every highly stylized film made since the advent of MTV. In this thrill-craving age of short attention spans, we could use a little boredom at the movies.
A little boredom.
Co-written by Mr. Van Sant with Casey Affleck and Matt Damon, both of whom had roles in Mr. Soderbergh's "Ocean's Eleven," the movie is a study of brute, elemental, physical desperation.
It is a departure for the two young actors and for the director, who, according to press notes, made "Gerry" with the glacially slow movies of Hungarian director Bela Tarr in mind.
Filmed in the bleak, Martian wastelands of Valle de la Luna National Park in Argentina, California's Death Valley and Wendover, Nev., "Gerry" is "Cast Away" meets "The Blair Witch Project" in a desert.
Mr. Affleck and Mr. Damon play two friends vaguely named Gerry, a word they also use as a verb synonymous with "botch" or "bungle." What little characterization "Gerry" attempts is purposefully thin; we glean only that Mr. Damon's Gerry is the more formidable of the two.
Out for a bracing hike in the pristine wilderness soon to be overrun by tourists, says one Gerry the pair speaks of an unnamed "thing" at the end of the trail. They bag seeing "the thing" and veer off the beaten path, only to become disoriented and stranded with no food or water.
Most of the dialogue is improvised; it's circular, desultory, disjointed, sometimes inane. It's essentially meaningless, but, as in Samuel Beckett's existentialist play, "Waiting for Godot," it makes a point which is that there is no point.
They talk about TV game shows and video games before the reality of their plight starts to sink in.
As in "Cast Away," music and dialogue peter out, until you sense the eerie, relentless nothingness of the desert.
"Gerry" tries to tell a big story with suggestive pictures and sounds.
In one scene, Mr. Van Sant lingers on the trudging pair from the neck up for almost five minutes. The crunching of gravel shifting under their feet becomes an almost hypnotic rhythm.
Arvo Part's score, which opens with a minimalist piano and violin piece, at one point tries to mimic what we hear inside our heads when there's nothing else to hear: a string of whizzes, whooshes and thumps.
Cinematographer Harris Savides ("Seven") pulls back the camera for panoramic shots that dwarf the two men, small and powerless as insects in a desolate moonscape.
Then he jabs the viewer with close-ups of the two friends, encircling them as they sit, sullen, contemplating their solitude and, presumably, their mortality.
The desert of "Gerry" is beautiful in its lonely immensity but forces us to confront the possibility that nature wasn't made for us. Nobody has dominion over the desert. Nothing lives or moves except the weather.
Cold fronts move in, artificially sped up by Mr. Savides. They sweep over the jagged mountaintops. A fiery orange sun rises. A creepy twilight hour sets in, and our two Gerrys march on, to somewhere and nowhere, dehydrated, hallucinating and close to death.
As refreshing as a movie like "Gerry" is, in the end it's less than the sum of its images.
Great stories require great language great writing. "Gerry" is a feast for the eyes and a stimulant for the mind, but it gets nowhere near the heart.

***
TITLE: "Gerry," playing exclusively at Visions Cinema
RATING: R (strong language)
CREDITS: Directed by Gus Van Sant. Produced by Dany Wolf. Written by Mr. Van Sant, Casey Affleck and Matt Damon. Cinematography by Harris Savides. Music by Arvo Part.
RUNNING TIMES: 103 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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