Gerry (2002) – Gus Van Sant

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What a trip.  The first of Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy”—the second being Elephant (2003), the third being Last Days (2005).  Written by Gus Van Sant, Casey Affleck, and Matt Damon; starring Casey Affleck and Matt Damon.  Two friends, both named Gerry, find themselves lost in the desert with no food or water.

This film was very Van Sant.  I can’t say that I enjoyed it, but it has stuck with me all day and I think it deserves a re-watching.  Dialogue is sparse, and a great percentage of the film is just the two men walking across the anonymous landscape in silence.  Van Sant follows them with tracking shots, and most of the scenes are filmed in single takes.  I have to admit that I found a lot of it pretty hard to watch, but conceptually it was really fascinating.

The dialogue provides little explication, and we know only that the two Gerries are hiking towards “the thing”.  Eventually they abandon their journey and decide to head back, ultimately losing their way.  There is a Samuel Beckett feel to the film, the two men moving meaninglessly through their confined world, a “thing” drawing them in and leading them into destruction.  The dialogue also feels very Beckett to me—lighthearted and mundane, but somehow taking on new meaning in their unique and dark situation.

The use of the name “Gerry” in the film is bizarre.  The characters share the name, and in an anecdote Affleck’s character mentions speaking to a third Gerry, the only person mentioned outside of the context of the plot.  The two men also use the word in casual conversation; Damon points out that “we totally Gerried the scout-about,” and Affleck accuses Damon of “Gerrying the rendezvous”.  Their entire world seems to be connected by this one word.  There is a moment in the film when a man appears in the distance walking towards the two Gerries, but when he finally reaches them he reveals himself to be Damon’s character, Affleck having been sitting beside a mirage version of his friend.  Everyone and everything is Gerry.

Of course, I was especially interested in the way the film connected to Elephant (because analyzing Elephant is my favorite thing to do).  And, to my delight, Gerry filled in some holes for me.  There is a moment during the actual shooting in Elephant where Eric says, “Anyway, Mr. Luce, whatever. You know there’s others like us out there too. And they will kill you if you f-ck with them like you did me and Gerry.”  There is no character in Elephant named Gerry.  Presumably Eric is talking about Alex, his partner in crime, but there is no explanation for why he slips the wrong name.  There is the impression that the world of Gerry, the vast tundra of death (!), extends out of that film and into the death and destruction of Elephant.

Additionally, in relation to Elephant, at one point Eric plays a video game that allows him to shoot down figures walking across a barren wasteland.  The video game uncannily parallels one of the final scenes in Gerry.  One of the figures in the game is even wearing a t-shirt with a star on the chest, which is what Affleck’s character wears for the entirety of the film.  The game is called “Gerrycount”.

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I was obsessed with the concept of Gerry as a video game in its own right.  Towards the beginning of the film, Affleck’s character has a long monologue about a video game where he “conquered Thebes”.  This is one of the longest sections of dialogue in the film, and through its monotony, it presents an interesting frame for the narrative that follows.  Van Sant frequently uses long shots to film the two men, reducing them to small, anonymous figures.  To me, it seems as though the two men have fallen into a video game, trekking across landscape that is being programmed before them.  The concept of a teenage boy from another film shooting them down in this wasteland is particularly troubling.

The ending of the film is dark.  Alfred Hitchcock was once quoted saying, “Film your murders like love scenes, and film your love scenes like murder scenes.”  I was forcibly reminded of that quote during one of the final scenes of the film, where the two Gerries lie together on their backs, exhausted from days of walking without food or water.  Affleck reaches for Damon’s hand, but Damon pulls away.  Eventually Damon rolls on top of Affleck, and the camera pulls back ambiguously—are they kissing?  Are they strangling each other?  Are they hugging?

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The fact that the film ends bleakly should come to no surprise to us.  Between the playful dialogue comes a loaded silence between the two men, and as their situation becomes more dire, the film becomes more and more uncomfortable to watch.  All in all, it is not a fun film, but it holds its own.  Great performances by Damon and Affleck, and as always, Van Sant’s camerawork is present and deliberate.  If you’re a Beckett fan, you might actually love it.

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