(2003) *** R
103 min. ThinkFilm Inc.. Director: Gus Van Sant. Cast: Casey Affleck, Matt Damon.

It's tempting to mimimize Gus Van Sant's experimental indie Gerry by dubbing it The Slow Walker (as opposed to last year's The Fast Runner) or perhaps Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Lost or even Dude, Where's My Life?. Luckily, I'm not the sort of critic who would stoop to such a level. Instead, I must admit that Gerry--though it is undeniably hollow and indulgent by conventional, literal-minded standards--is another small triumph of technique for Van Sant, the indefatigable, offbeat auteur.

Van Sant seems to have an artistic death-wish (remember the Psycho remake?), and Gerry ups the ante by indulging vast expanses of no dialogue in an austere, minimalist, theatre-of-the-absurd observation of two fellows of frightfully average intelligence. Matt Damon and Casey Affleck play the two men, both of whom call each other "Gerry" (also their term for a screw-up, of which they experience plenty). Their early ridicule of a Wheel of Fortune contestant who couldn't guess the word puzzle "barreling down the road" prefigures the cruel irony of this "Gerry" of a road trip.

Like The Shining, Gerry begins with the drive as setting, an ominous, lonely road leading the two men from dust to dust. After many minutes of silence, the men emerge from their car for a hike that will take them to an event referred to only as "the thing." The men's inevitable loss of direction after a blithe diversion from the path recalls the crushing dread of the ill-fated, other-worldly explorations of factual and fictional mountain-climbers, polar explorers, and stranded astronauts. Accompanied by lilting but stark piano and violin, the successive narrative--if it can be called that--puts one in mind, then, of 2001: A Space Odyssey and its potential to test the patience of all but the most adventurous of audiences. Kubrick, not incidentally, is Van Sant's favorite director.

Despite its existential milieu of ambient soundscape and horrible beauty, Gerry's greatest failing may be its scarcity of intellectual complication (one of 2001's greatest strengths). Still, against the odds, Van Sant makes something of nothing. Harris Savides's athletic and graceful camerawork-- taking in heat, stinging dust in the wind, equivocal clouds and mocking tumbleweeds, and, yes, despair itself--justifies the movie as painting. Is it a painting deserving of 103 minutes of scrutiny? Many will feel like they're watching paint dry, but dry humor, raw performances, and a stoic landscape which seems to stare back at the camera had me glued to the screen.

Van Sant shrewdly tricks his actors into being on camera with long, improvised takes. One potent 360-degree shot around Affleck moves slowly through melancholia to searing ruination. In the mode of de facto survival drama, Van Sant dares you not to hold your breath. As a powerful evocation of nature's elemental awesomeness and man's ephemerality, Gerry is a movie to get lost in.

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