Until recently I had no idea that Gus Van Sant’s films Elephant and Last Days, both of which I liked, formed part of a loose ‘Death Trilogy’ with a third leftfield drama from the early 2000’s. I’d like to think my ignorance’s isn’t all that surprising: Gerry, which pre-dated the aforementioned movies, may feature recognisable box-office draws in Matt Damon and Casey Affleck but its narrative structure and minimal style are resolutely anti-populist, and predictably it was a flop on release, only making around $250,000 back against an outlay of $3.5 million. Limited release notwithstanding, it’s not difficult to see why. Gerry is so slow and sparse it’s even harder to digest than Elephant, a touchy state-of-the-nation drama about a Columbine-style school shooting, and Last Days, which is a fictionalised account of the death of a rock star who bears more than a passing resemblance to Kurt Cobain. Gerry is also supposedly based on a real life murder, and the plot shares some common ground with the tragic 1999 death of David Coughlin, who was killed by his best friend Raffi Kodikian after the pair got lost hiking in the desert of southern New Mexico. For New Mexico read Death Valley and for Raffi and David read Gerry and Gerry, with both Affleck and Damon’s characters sharing the same first name; strangely they also use it as a verb in the film, as in ‘…and then we Gerried off to the animal tracks’ or ‘I crow’s-nested up here to scout-about the ravine ’cause I thought maybe you Gerried the rendezvous’. (Van Sant has revealed that long-standing friends Damon, Affleck (and older brother Ben) use the phrase regularly when they are together.)
There are no backstories given for these two characters: we don’t know where they are from, or what they do, or how long they have known each other, or whether their families are frantically organising search parties with local rangers elsewhere. Dialogue is thin on the ground. The characters don’t even discuss the situation they’ve found themselves in all that much, and although there are various hints that they have been friends for a while – most of Affleck and Damon’s dialogue is improvised and they received co-writer credits – little else is discovered during the running time; more often than not we just see the pair walking silently, growing ever more desperate in their quest to find a road. Complementing the odd, unsettling tone created by the minimal dialogue are several long takes (at one point the camera revolves around a seated Affleck for about three minutes, and another shot shows the pair walking on salt flats for what seems to be an eternity) and Van Sant’s regular DP, the late, great Harris Savides, also films the scenery accordingly, capturing plenty of big, empty spaces. If my description makes it sound as thrilling as watching wallpaper dry that’s not actually the case. It is by design a soporific film, but it also has a skewed humorous edge to it, too. There’s some mischief in Van Sant’s decision to include a scene in which the two characters joke about the lack of intelligence of a gameshow constestant Damon’s Gerry saw on TV just after the pair do something equally stupid in leaving a clearly-marked trail without any GPS devices or maps (remember, we’re pre-smartphone here), and the interplay between the two stars is also laced with wit. But humour, like everything else, is included sparingly. Gerry is a deliberately offbeat drama that nods to Bela Tarr and Andrei Tarkovsky, and although it lacks the weight of their work it confirms the long-held belief that Van Sant is at his most interesting when he is making movies that serve as outliers of mainstream cinema. As much as I like Movie Star Matt Damon, and regardless of the fact he has been in some excellent films over the years, I wish he would try his hand at something as unusual as this collaborative piece again.
Directed by: Gus Van Sant.
Written by: Gus Van Sant, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck.
Starring: Casey Affleck, Matt Damon.
Cinematography: Harris Savides.
Editing: Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, Gus Van Sant.
Music: Arvo Pärt.
Running Time: 98 minutes.