Gerry DVD: Review By brianroche

  • Feature
  • Extras
  • Replay Value
Mess with "Gerry", and you're messing with me. Okay, not really. But I'm very protective toward this movie. It's been called a lot of things since it's release a year ago: boring, pretentious, a rip-off, muddled, arty. More than any other recent film, it has inspired not only dislike, but anger. Oddly, this how-dare-they loathing has been shared by both audiences AND critics. Myself, I don't get it. From my very first viewing, "Gerry" has felt like an all-net three from mid-court.

"Gerry"'s plot is only this: Matt Damon and Casey Affleck get lost in the desert. There are no other characters, except for a family they pass on the trail early in the film. There is no secondary plotline, away from the two of them. The movie doesn't avoid these aspects as a means of making a statement or offering up a challenge or trying to tell the audience that it's smarter than they are. It is only trying to show us these two guys' subjective experience of being completely lost.

The key word there is 'show'. Every screenwriting manual has a chapter on 'show don't tell'. As in, don't tell the audience about the characters and the story with expositional dialogue. Show it to them. Reveal character through action. "Gerry" just might be the most perfect reflection of this philosophy. It shows us everything about these two guys and their situation. Shows us, and really, makes us look.

Van Sant makes us look right away, as we cut in from a blue title card (without any titles). We see a car drive down an empty stretch of highway, in what looks like the Southwest U.S. And just when you think it's going to cut, the shot continues to hang back behind that car. Van Sant holds on that car on that road. And holds and holds. Finally, he cuts Damon and Affleck inside the car. And he holds that shot for a long time. Then it cuts to the windshield view of the road, and holds it.

Van Sant holds his wide-screen images for so long with intent to hypnotize us. For me it worked. I felt instantly dialed in to Damon and Affleck's listlessness, confusion, and eventual desperation. To those who'd call this artsy-fartsy, let me say that I've been on road trips like this - you feel like you've been in the car forever, you've forgotten why you're driving and where you're driving to, and you can't f*ckin' believe you have to drive with THAT guy.

"Gerry"'s images are truly captivating, but they don't detract from or overpower the Gerries themselves. Damon and Affleck's characters have no names, but they refer to each other as "Gerry", and use the term 'gerry' to mean to screw up, do something stupid, etc. This kind of inside joke is absolutely true to life, the way two people talk who've know each other forever. Damon and Affleck bring a convincing male camaraderie to this movie. And really, in every movie these guys make (and Ben Affleck too), they seem like true buddies with the other male characters. (And it's not easier because they already know each other; I once spent a weekend shooting a horror movie on video with several of my best friends, and when we watched the footage later, it felt like we had never met before). In Gerry, they bounce dialogue off one another in true friend-rhythm, just talking without the need to seem overly polite or clear. The screenplay is credited to Damon and Affleck as well as Van Sant, and I don't know if it's because they all actually wrote the dialogue ahead of time, or they improved it on the set and came up with the credits later, but it works and is surprisingly hilarious. They have several discussions, about 'Wheel of Fortune', a computer game, speculating on how to find water or on what route to take ("I gerried the rendezvous"). Their best interaction is in a scene where Affleck finds himself marooned atop a gigantic rock, and needs Damon's help to get down. The plan they devise involves the coining of two new phrases (dirt-mattress and shirt-basket) that our culture will be remiss in not using more frequently. It's also a pleasure to see Damon, a true actor-star in the vein of Spencer Tracy and Denzel Washington, fumble around like an idiot.

The dirt-mattress scene is also important because it's impossible. There's no way Affleck could have gotten up on that rock in the first place, unless he's secretly some genius rock-climber. This is deliberately surreal, befitting their personal experience of being lost. Van Sant also pushes the surreal by varying the desert terrain as the film progresses, so it feels like they're in completely different places from scene to scene (the movie was shot in a number of deserts, in Arizona, Argentina, and finally Death Valley).
"Salt Lake Van Sant". This 13-minute doc*mentary chronicles the shooting of one of "Gerry"'s long shots in the Utah Salt Flats. It's impressive for two reasons. For one, the crew laid down what looks like a mile of dolly track to get the shot. For two, we see an injured crew member quote the entire "it's but a flesh wound' bit from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" and forget the name of that film - the closest he gets is "I think it might be one of those Monty Python-type movies."

There are no other features. Van Sant and Damon have recorded very good commentaries for their prior DVDs, so it's a disappointment not to have them do so here. Scheduling might have prevented their participation, which is just as well. "Gerry" speaks for itself just fine.
The transfer is pristine. Shot in 2.35:1 by Harris Savides ("The Game", and Van Sant's "Finding Forrester"), "Gerry"'s desert look lonely and haunting.

There are supposedly fewer than 40 shots in Gerry. I haven't counted, but am not surprised. All of them are great, but I feel like singling out three in particular.

The first tracks with Damon and Affleck as they race each other toward 'the thing', some tourist attraction up the trail a ways. They race until they give up and decide to give up and go back to their car. The camera curves back around the way they came, and they look confused and suddenly they are lost. This movie needed a transition from the creepy emptiness of the beginning to the escalating urgency of the rest of the movie. I can't remember the last time a movie switched gears with a single composition. I wouldn't be surprised if it had taken days just to get this.

The second comes a bit after the dirt mattress scene, Damon and Affleck starting to get really worried. As they walk determinedly through the desert, the camera focuses unblinkingly on their heads, moving in a jackhammer synchronicity. Again, who would think of such a shot? Without any words, we understand that these two carefree guys are losing their sh*t.

The third is the movie's most blatantly impressionistic shot, tracking the two of them as they walk like zombies, seemingly a football field apart, on the Utah Salt Flats as the sun rises. With an almost percussive sound design in synch with their footsteps, sun coming up that somehow does not eradicate the darkness of the previous night, we understand, again wordlessly, that there is no hope for these two lost souls. (The filming of this shot is chronicled on the disc's lone feature).
The sound is great as well, in English 5.1. I can't imagine "Gerry"without the sound of boots crunching on soil, or the sound of wind whipping over the dunes and through canyons. On top of this Van Sant and his sound team add in a carpet of hums and ticks, suggesting the sinister energy of a vast empty land.

The film's unique score is by Arvo Part. I am unfamiliar with his work prior to this. His music matches the film by making a lot out of so little. His opening cue in particular just knocks me out, a lonely piano cue that perfectly matches that lone car, driving down the road.
"Gerry"'s detractors have made much out of Van Sant apparently aping the work of Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr, who also uses long shots and minimal dialogue. None of Tarr's films are available in the U.S. that I know of, so I am unable to comment on how closely Gerry resembles them. For now, I can tell you it's a unique, spellbinding movie experience.

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