If you ever consider sitting down to watch Gus Van Sant's Gerry, make sure you pick the right time. Gerry is cinematic minimalism in its purest form, trading a (comprehensible) plot and character development for experience and atmosphere. The result is captivating and impressive, but if Van Sant's vision misses target it could just as well turn out to be one of the most boring film experiences you've ever had in your life.
After 2000 Gus Van Sant set out to reinvent himself. Before he directed Gerry, Van Sant evolved from indie to Hollywood over the course of six films, culminating in the much-lauded and rather pleasant Good Will Hunting. With Gerry he went back to the days of Mala Noche, ditching the restrictions of popular cinema and starting a series of films that would hold the power to greatly divide audiences, but at least could claim purity and a non-compromised vision.
Gerry was the first (and best) of that series. Van Sant stripped the film of everything that could distract viewers from the core experience, leaving only the bare necessities to create one of the most mesmerizing cinematic experiences out there. While open to many interpretations, the film features little else than two dudes walking. They're both called Gerry and they are on their way to "a thing". There's your story.
Along the way they stray from the beaten path, getting themselves lost in a wild and barren wilderness. The more they try to escape from their predicament, the further they distance themselves from civilization, having only each other to depend upon. Without food and water they soon start to hallucinate and with no help in sight, their fate is pretty much set in stone. Then again, nothing is what it seems in this film.
Van Sant leans heavily on the visuals to create his cinematic trip. The film consists of a series of long takes, alternated by time lapses of the scenery. It's not just a technical experiment though, Van Sant is also out to capture particular moments in time. The most beautiful scene of the film finds our two main characters walking sluggishly in the dark, five minutes later the sun has risen to reveal yet another lifeless horizon. While a little dated when it comes to lighting and coloring, Gerry remains a visual feast.
The soundtrack is mostly absent, apart from two stunning Arvo Part tracks. The slow, sedated pace of the music really fits the film's atmosphere, further fueling the trance-like feeling that Van Sant strives for. The only problem with Arvo Part is that it's quite popular film music (Spiegel Im Spiegel was also used in This Must Be The Place, among others), so even though the music really works well within the film, it never feels like it's truly a part of Gerry.
It's pretty rare for a film like this to land a real big actor like Matt Damon, then again Van Sant worked with Damon on Good Will Hunting which no doubt helped to convince him to do this project. The other Gerry is played by Casey Affleck (Ben's little brother) who does a pretty commendable job keeping up with Damon. They form a pretty interesting duo, freewheeling through the improvised dialogues as they go along. As for secondary actors, there are literary none.
Gerry is a pretty fragmented journey. It's a selection of stand-alone scenes, sometimes defined by technical trickery (like the awesome 360), sometimes by references (Van Sant's nod to Bela Tarr's bobbing heads) and sometimes by the capturing of unique moments (like the sunrise). It's the ever degenerating state of the two Gerry characters that binds these scenes together, molding them into a pretty coherent, mesmerizing trip.
It's best to leave all hope of a decent storyline behind when you want to watch this film. Gerry is all about the experience, ignoring the rest and foregoing all compromises. Instead you get a pure and focused journey that, if everything falls into place, puts you in a very pleasant and meandering trance. The film has visually aged a little ever since its initial release, but apart from that it's still a very unique and worthwhile experiment and the start of Van Sant's most interesting period in his career. It may be a bit hard to recommend, but if you feel up to the task Gerry proves to be one of the purest, minimalistic films out there.