Gerry: I thought maybe you’d succumbed.
Gerry: I almost did succumb, but then I turbaned up, and I feel a lot better.
Gerry is a breathtaking film, demanding in its simplicity and its persistence. I know I am nearly four years late in saying this, but I think this movie is a big step forward in the art of filmmaking and will be, hopefully, one day remembered as taking the first confident and reckless steps toward a new aesthetic. I don’t believe it was shot on digital equipment, but within this film is the promise of the future digital age. Forget Sin City, this movie reaps the benefits of a digital culture. It narrows in on the details of reality without screaming about them, shows the boring, repetitive, and monotonous nature of living without commenting on it. The movie features a plainly presented, yet completely subjective narrative, long, strenuous shots that go on for ages, and an offhanded, naturalistic acting style that puts the “reality” of so-called reality TV stars to shame. It’s the kind of movie you can imagine being shown to you after traveling to the future (or the past) and, upon watching it, feeling as if you don’t have the proper frame of reference to watch correctly.
The plot of the movie can be described as simply as “Two guys get lost in the wilderness and try to find their way home.” There’s not a whole lot else that happens in the film. Matt Damon and Casey Affleck (both named Gerry) go out to the woods, make a wrong turn, get lost, make several other wrong turns, can’t find water, and wander about. The movie is, really, that simple.
But, sweet baby Jesus, how the movie goes about showing this! First of all, the relationship between the two guys is depicted in a fashion that is evocative of every single relationship with another male of my generation that I’ve been in. They connect to each other in a vaguely aggressive joking style that only grows more outwardly aggressive as their situation becomes more dire. Kudos, also, to the movie for getting correct the absurdity of hearing people talk about video games. Casey Affleck has a speech toward the beginning of the film where he relates how he conquered Thebes but couldn’t defend his home base because he needed twelve horses, but only had eleven. This puts it into my good books automatically. Then, there’s a gut-bustingly hilarious bit where Affleck is stuck high up on a rock and is scared to jump down. Damon tries to fashion a “dirt mattress” by hauling dirt in a “shirt basket”. The two are constantly inventing new uses of language to describe their situation, another pleasing and accurate touch to their characters.
The photography in this film is immaculate, so-gorgeous-you-want-to -jump-in-your-screen-and-be-there outdoor photography. The dialogue in the film is sparse and most of the shots are epic, unbroken, and long, so this becomes a key component to the success of the film. The environment becomes like a malevolent God, surrounding them, trapping them no matter which way they turn and adapting to reflect the emotional quality of their relationship, like some kind-of amoeba mood ring.
However, where the film shoots off to the moon in terms of breathing new life into an art form that tends to spin its wheels because of business concerns, is in its pace. As mentioned, there are many shots that go on for ages, depicting nothing more than Affleck and Damon walking great distances. This had two effects on me. First, I got bored and my mind began to wander… What am I doing at work tomorrow? What time is that meeting? Where are my shoes, did I put them in the closet or did I leave them in the kitchen? Then, because the shot continued, my mind returned to the movie, but not in an entirely active way. The style of the film allowed it to sweep over me and into my brain, to the point that there are large sections of this movie where I forgot that I was watching a movie. The photography, acting, sound, and pace were completely immersive, once I settled in. Further, because there are so few of them, the cuts in this movie actually mean something. The film takes back the power of editing, something cheapened by the appropriation of fast, arty cutting by pop culture business interests, by emphasizing the power of the shot. I was often staring, mesmerized, hypnotized by the film, scrutinizing frames for things I thought I saw but turned out to be refractions of light in the lens. When one character says, “It’s just another mirage,” I nodded. I understood and not in one of those intellectual ways. I’d just seen a mirage.
I imagine that many, many, many people despise the movie. It’s definitely not for people with short attention spans, nor is it for those who desire the safety nets of genre, plot, or, hell, the traditional language of filmmaking. But all of these things, in movies, have become so oversaturated in our culture, so predictable and stale, that when a new dialect emerges, it’s reason to stand up and applaud, applaud as loudly as that one guy who starts clapping when the hero isn’t as victorious as you thought he’d be, and then inspires everyone else to join in. And where is the applause for this movie? Are we really so boring and suckled as a viewing public that no one has the courage to say, “this movie said something by saying absolutely nothing, and saying it for long stretches of time”
I’m so excited by this film and have this gut feeling that someone will somehow show me that Gus Van Sant didn’t do anything new here. But for me, it’s like he went into the desert and came out with a new paradigm for filmmaking. I wish I’d known sooner.