You know how boys love to play soldier? How they get stern-faced and march out to destroy an enemy they believe needs destroying? Well, actors are into that too. Sometimes they soldier on even when Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson isn't around to help them frown determinedly. Such is the case with Gerry, wherein two nameless guys (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) get lost and wander steadfastly through the merciless desert. The project is saturated with glumness, and its weird blend of absurd existentialism and mounting panic have earned it a likening to Beckett and The Blair Witch Project. There's elegance and grace here, fostering an opportunity to reflect upon why men get so dutiful about being down. It's worth the hike.
From the top, director Gus Van Sant (Psycho -- no, the other one) seeks to surprise our senses. A plangent violin sings, as we travel for what seems like forever (but is actually about five minutes), driving along desert roads with a Mercedes. Is this the most boring racing game ever made? A dusty, low-budget homage to The Shining (sans helicopter shadow)? Are those real lens flares? Will this be like The Hitcher or Wild at Heart? No, kind of, yes, and no. As the American Southwest rolls out, we're given time to depressurize and enter a much more meditative state than most current movies allow.
By the time the car stops and we meet our hapless protagonists, Van Sant has made us hungry for information. It's a subtle, effective conceit he employs throughout the film. The two leads are almost the only people we see, yet during their apathetic nature walk and subsequent shuffle into oblivion, we're offered little insight into their respective personalities. They dress like '90s Gap ads and punctuate lengthy silences with random asides about cheesy quiz shows and mythic role-playing games, but their M.O.s are as vague to them as they are to us. We only learn that these bumblers refer to each other as "Gerry," an affectionately insulting nickname.
Van Sant does not attempt to make Gerry a conventional narrative film, so don't go in expecting one. Instead, he wants these two incredibly clueless "Gerrys" to lead you very gradually into the in-between feelings of life's drama -- in particular, its pensive dread. His tactic is to employ really long shots of the two guys walking through the desiccated wilderness, accompanied by thirst, exaggerated tumbleweed infestations, piano tinkles, and sound effects (mostly sinister wind). How much you want to stare at grubby Matt and Casey is up to you -- apparently the "sexiest man alive" was busy -- but Van Sant's frames are artful and geometrically inspired, and his rhythms can be fascinating.
Gerry is very simple and earnest, and flawed too (the guys' attempts at "survival" would win them lifetime Darwin awards for ineptitude), but it's strange that Van Sant's film has been doing shelf time since 2001. Here he has produced the cinematic equivalent of a quiet, scenic grunge album, with all the rage of that musical era turned inside out. As our heroes soldier on, we become aware that their only enemy is meaninglessness -- and that their enemy lies within.