When He Was 17, It Was a Very Good Film

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 28, 2003

Too bad for "Gerry" I didn't review it when I was 17. I think it would have gone something . . . like . . . this.

" 'Gerry,' Gus Van Sant's new movie, is brilliant. What a penetrating examination of man's isolation. It recalls Matthew Arnold's poem 'Dover Beach,' showing us two young men who are there as on a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and fright, while ignorant armies clash by night. At the same time, it recalls the haunting vividness of Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot' as performed out back of Roy Rogers's high-desert ranch.

"The plot is myth-simple, yet freighted with symbolic resonance. Two young men -- both cleverly named 'Gerry' to suggest their ur-text commonality -- drive into the desert for a walk. Unthinkingly they wander off the trail and soon the overwhelming sameness of nature takes them over. They realize they are lost, they are unprepared and finally, they are doomed.

"As they wander, they each evoke a life in a few poignant strokes: a loved one to be missed, a culture abandoned, a civilization no longer seen. They are not 'real' in the objective sense, as they make almost no attempts to cope. In fact, quite rapidly they give up, and let the immensity of nature take its cruel course. Van Sant, with his wondrous penchant for emphasizing the tininess of man against the hugeness of the landscape, and his willingness to let the shot run on and on as time goes by, refuting the bourgeois dictates of the commercial cinema, is staking claim to a dark but powerful (and Kubrickian) philosophical position: Man is nothing, life is short, we only have each other."

At 35, I might have had something like this to say about the picture . . .

"Give it to Matt Damon, he is nothing if not adventurous. Where other stars of his magnitude and success morph into superheroes (like his buddy Ben Affleck in 'Daredevil'), the scrupulous and admirable young Damon has clung to his indie roots.

"In 'Gerry' he reunites with Gus Van Sant, who directed him and Affleck in the superb 'Good Will Hunting,' but this time on a project that dashes all commercial expectations while at the same time making inquiries of the sort all but alien to the American cinema.

"Damon, Van Sant, Affleck's younger brother Casey and cinematographer Harris Savides wandered into the desert (actually, several different deserts) and seemingly improvised a strange yet strangely affecting film called 'Gerry.' Both actors play a Gerry, suggesting that they are possibly the same man at two ages, against some empty backdrop that is less than literal: Is it possibly the landscape of the mind?

"They set out for a simple walk, meaning but to experience the silence that is nowhere to be found in a busy urban life. But sooner or later they lose contact with reality and are alone with themselves. Quickly enough the situation becomes desperate, and they experience the gamut of emotions that exposure to death engenders.

"One may make what one wants of the philosophical questions or even ask if the film is rigorous enough to qualify as philosophy. But, as a record of extraordinary performances in a natural key, unforced, unbloated with Hollywood baloney and posing, it's magnificent. The two Gerrys interact naturally, their emotions rising in a crescendo to a final, devastating development as the end comes to seem very, very near.

"And, too, one must respect the sensitivity to the imaginative use of landscape that informs the picture and admire the way Van Sant finds to place them against the rocks and dry hills in such a way as to underline without billowy rhetoric the seriousness of their situation and the deteriorating quality of their relationship. Additionally, the spare music of Arvo Part gives the film a spooky quality almost never found in the commercial cinema.

"In the end, 'Gerry' is beyond the simple question of pleasure. Seeing it may be no fun at all, but then discomfort is part of the price one pays in learning."

But, alas, I am long past 17 and long past 35. So here is my official review as it looks from 56:

"Zzzzzzzz. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Ulph. Umph. Ach. ZZZZZZZzzzzzzzz."

Gerry (103 minutes, at Visions Cinema) is rated R for profanity and one act of violence.


© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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