If his shot-for-shot remake of "Psycho" was one sort of artistic dead end for Gus Van Sant, then "Gerry" reps another. But like his hapless characters here, the filmmaker has lost his bearings -- a sensation that will be shared by the few viewers this picture is likely to ever have.

If his shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho” was one sort of artistic dead end for Gus Van Sant, then “Gerry” reps another. As empty as the vast desert landscapes in which it is set, this rigorously formal exercise in minimalist cinema was undoubtedly designed to serve as an indie purification rite for the director after the overtly commercial aims of his last three outings. But like his hapless characters here, the filmmaker has lost his bearings — a sensation that will be shared by the few viewers this picture is likely to ever have. With the exception of fests and a few high art venues in France and elsewhere, this defiantly uncommunicative picture has nowhere to go.

Mostly made up by Van Sant and his co-stars Casey Affleck and Matt Damon in rehearsals and as they shot, visually lustrous but dialogue-deprived picture displays numerous influences, some obvious — Antonioni, Samuel Beckett — others more obscure, including Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr, whose bold work Van Sant has recently extolled. Unfortunately, he transforms none of these influences to his own advantage, while at the same time draining the work of his own greatest strengths, notably quirky characterization, offbeat observation of relationships and delineation of distinctive life paths.

After driving in silence for five minutes through some scrubby desert, two young men, both named Gerry, get out of their car and begin hiking on a wilderness trail, vaguely in the direction of “the thing.” The exceptional majesty of the rugged backdrops, the sad strains of the spare violin-and-piano accompaniment, and the sometimes augmented natural sounds of animals and weather encourage a contemplative posture, which generous audiences will be willing to assume for a while.

After a first night in the wild, the men, who have brought with them no backpacks with provisions of any kind, even water, enact the picture’s most plainly Beckett-inspired setpiece, in which Affleck finds himself stranded atop a 20-foot rock with no way down except to jump. The anxiety is prolonged for a good little while, perhaps 10 minutes, and while the result is hardly inspired, it exhibits a passable instinct for absurdist theatrical humor entirely lacking thereafter.

But then if Van Sant had been interested in the comic potential of such a piece, he could have chosen actors with anarchic or sad-sack personalities, such as Steve Zahn or Steve Buscemi. No, bigger existential game is the target, which becomes evident after the second night in the hopelessly disorienting wasteland. The guys are lost, their every attempt to retrace their steps futile, their energy fading, their tendency to hallucinate increasing. And every step seems to take them into ever more forbidding territory, to the point where not a single other living thing can be seen.

As the Gerrys run low on nourishment, so does the film, which unlike the best work of Tarr and Antonioni and others, fails to fill up its large spaces and long takes (there are only about 100 shots in the entire picture, making for an average of one per minute) with allegorical or metaphysical meanings. The pitilessness of nature is on ample display, and one can venture interpretations as to meaning of the men’s inability to find their way, albeit to no edifying end. There’s no here nor there nor anywhere here.

After the original locations in Argentina proved too cold, shooting shifted to Death Valley and the Salt Lake area, and the spectacular scenery unquestionably dominates the picture. Harris Savides’ camera is almost constantly on the move to provide visual stimulation, but this is very far from being enough. For uncharitable viewers, the “vegan chef” credit in the end scroll will say all that needs to be said about this picture.

Gerry

Production

A My Cactus presentation. Produced by Dany Wolf. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Screenplay, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, Van Sant.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, widescreen), Harris Savides; music, Arvo Part; sound (Dolby Digital), Felix Andrew; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Leslie Shatz; associate producer, Jay Hernandez; assistant director, Dany Wolf. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premiere/Frontier), Jan. 12, 2002. Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Gerry - Casey Affleck
Gerry - Matt Damon
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