Gus Van Sant’s Gerry is an homage to the power of landscape: the camera endlessly pans slowly over deserts and mountains in a series of long takes (the film averages a staggering sixty seconds between cuts) that emphasize the vastness and imperturbability of the environment in which the movie’s two protagonists find themselves lost. Stitching together scenes shot in California, Utah, and Argentina, with a range of different terrains from scrubland to canyons to saltpan, Gerry unfolds an almost mythical panorama of inhospitable (perhaps better, indifferent) grandeur. The two would-be adventurers who traipse through the frame are doubly lost: not only do they have not the slightest idea of where they are and where they are headed; also they have increasingly to recognize their insignificance against this magnificent natural backdrop.
And yet the film is also touchingly human. For it is equally, and perhaps even more importantly, the depiction of a friendship.
We first meet the two young men (played by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) in a long opening sequence in which they are driving through what looks to be the US Southwest. Arvo Pärt’s sparse piano music sets a stately, unhurried mood. Inside the car, neither occupant talks to the other. It’s only later that we realize that they don’t talk because they don’t need to talk: nothing needs to be said. Theirs is a silence of long mutual familiarity.
When the couple do speak, it is in a short-hand born of what is evidently a history of in-jokes that have created something like a private language. They both call each other “Gerry,” but also use “gerry” as a verb with multiple meanings. It’s as though English had too many superfluous words, and they feel they can get by with a pared-down version of the language. Yet their idiolect hardly lacks creativity and humor: they happily come up with neologisms such as “dirt blanket” and “shirt basket” as they try to figure a way out of a predicament in which one of them finds himself stuck on a prominent rock.
They refer to their initial objective, for which they’ve set out on this journey in the first place, as “the thing.” But the point of their jaunt in the country seems to be more mutual silent companionship than any well-defined telos: soon enough they abandon their half-hearted quest, because the thing is just a “thing” after all. It’s not then as though they see more importance to the objects to which words are rather precariously attached. What’s important is a shared affect that lies somewhere between words and things, between their deliberately curtailed discourse and the thing itself.
It’s on the return from their soon-abandoned mission to find the thing that they gradually realize that they are lost, and increasingly so with every attempt to extricate themselves from their predicament. But this realization doesn’t bring with it any reminiscence, confession, or reflection on their lives together or alone. They exchange anecdotes about TV shows or video games. And at the one point at which recrimination or blame seems about to surface, it’s defused with the simplest of ironic denunciations: “Fuck you,” says one Gerry to the other. “Fuck you,” the other replies. And then they walk on, still together.
Even at the last, they maintain an understated humour. The two are lying side by side in the middle of a salt desert whose featureless whiteness carries echoes of polar ice. This could be a contemporary reworking of the last moments of Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition. And one says to the other: “How do you think the hike’s going so far?” “Very good,” the other replies. What follows shortly thereafter is a final embrace whose very finality, we know without (now) needing to be told, is going to haunt the one Gerry who survives the experience for as long as he lives.
See also Thomas Clolus, “Gerry, ou le corps Deleuzien de Gus Van Sant”.
YouTube link: the film’s trailer.