Gerry, or all Roads Lead to the “Thing”

A groundbreaking moment in commercial American narrative cinema

by Donato Totaro Volume 7, Issue 3 / March 2003 11 minutes (2680 words)

Critical consensus seems that Gerry has ferociously divided audiences into those that think it is a visionary/transcendent masterpiece and those that feel it is a self-indulgent, molasses-paced arthouse bore. As I searched through the internet for reviews of Gerry I discovered that there are as many critics who are unsure of what to make of this film. Which either says something about the aesthetic latitude of the critics involved, or is a good indication of just how original an American film Gerry is, or both. Two of the first reviews that were listed in a search made with the Movie Review Query Engine were by Roger Ebert and Dave Edelstein. Both Ebert and Edelestein essentially gave the film a negative review but were reluctant to dismiss it entirely and claimed that they ‘admired it.’ Edelstein: “I imagine that a lot of people are going to make fun of Gerry as a sort of ambient movie, an arty exercise in withholding; and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t annoy the hell out of me for most of its 103-minute running time. But I might watch it again sometime and try a little harder to get on its wavelength. In some strange way, I admire the enterprise.” Ebert: “The longer the movie ran, the less I liked it and the more I admired it.” Edelstein adds a comment which suggests he is missing the point of the film, or at least unwilling to judge it at its generic level: “The problem is, we don’t actually know who these Gerrys are or where they’re going or even how they feel about their situation until they’re on the verge of perishing from dehydration.”

Both these reviews allude to Samuel Beckett. In fact at least half of the reviews I read made mention of Beckett. Since the two cited reviews were negative, by inference one could read this as meaning that Beckett is bad. Or conversely, that it is acceptable to be obtuse, intellectually playful, and formally rigorous in theatre or drama, but not in film. It’s as if we have regressed to 1915 and have to once again take up the old struggle to justify film as art. These fence-sitting critics trounce the film on one hand to align themselves with the mainstream taste, and then give it a backhanded complement just in case it grows in critical stature over time, or worse yet, becomes an undisputed masterpiece. What I find most frustrating about this fence-sitting is the critical fear of going out on a limb for a film that was clearly made with reckless abandon, without a niche audience or market profile in mind. And not many films can claim that as a modus operandi. Some would say Gerry is destined to alienate a mainstream audience, but I prefer the word challenge. The sad reality is that too many people, audiences and critics, don’t want or expect much from their cinema.

I have no qualms in saying that Gerry is not only one of the bravest and greatest American films in years, but marks a groundbreaking moment in commercial American narrative cinema. What makes it groundbreaking? Gerry is the first American narrative film available to a mainstream audience to employ an excessive long take style in a uniform manner and in a particular rhythm across the whole of its length. This decision to make the long take such a dominant and uniform element affects the film’s treatment of time and its overall rhythm and pace. To begin, there are no ‘peaks and valleys,’ no ‘fast-paced’ climax, and no build-up or crescendo. The film runs 103 minutes, with an estimated 100 shots, which works out to an average shot length (ASL) of roughly 60”. This is an ASL one encounters in films by Andrei Tarkovsky, Theo Angelopoulos, Bela Tarr, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and Tsai Ming-Liang, not in American films starring Matt Damon playing at your local first run theatre. Equally important to the film’s measured rhythm is that the ASL is consistent across the film, with approximately 50 shots in the first half and 50 shots in the second half. Along with the film’s extremely slow ASL and metronomic rhythm, is its languid pace and minimal narrative. In terms of the plot little happens in a conventional dramatical sense and there is little action or conflict. To reiterate, no commercially distributed American narrative film has ever, to my knowledge, combined such an aesthetic, formal approach.

However, the film is never dull or uninteresting in the way a formulaic narrative film can often be. Gerry demonstrates that interesting and exciting is a relative term and does not have to equate with car crashes every twenty minutes, explosions, bombs bursting in air, plot twists and turns, romance, and a breathtaking climax. Gerry contains neither of the latter (well, perhaps with the exception of romance), but is exciting in primal ways that most other American films are not: in its sensuous cinematography, provocative and enigmatic character dynamics, seductive camera movements, treatment of temporality, and sound-image juxtaposition. At the end of the day, is it such a sin for a film’s pleasure to be derived almost exclusively from its form and style? Or have we become too aesthetically cynical and temporally pragmatic to enjoy a work of art where patience is a necessary virtue?

One of the formal goals Van Sant had in mind for Gerry was to render the sense of a more homogenous, continuous, real time. In fact this ideal is far from achieved theoretically in the film because its plot time covers roughly 72 hours across 100 minutes of screen-time, meaning that there is considerable time compression. There are many more films that come closer to this real time ideal. Rope (1946), The Set-up (1949), High Noon (1952), Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962), and Running Time (1997) to name only a few. However, rhythmically, Gerry evokes real time because of the extremely long single takes and the fact that many of the time compressions occur within a single, seemingly unedited take. For example, the many time lapse scenes of clouds drifting through space and day turning to night, or long takes where there are subtle gradations and changes in light.

Gerry strangely withholds the narrative trappings of conventional cinema until the very end, when it raises the sort of questions about plot and character that most mainstream cinema would have asked a long time ago and have solved by the end. Instead Gus Van Sant skirts around the issue until the end, then leaves them up to our own devices. The film opens and closes on traveling long take shots of the road and desert landscape seen from the Vantage of a moving car. Two young, energetic men, whom I’ll call Gerry 1 (Matt Damon, the alpha male), and Gerry 2 (the more passive, sensitive Casey Affleck), drive their beat up Mercedes-Benz off to the side of the road and hike along a path toward “the thing.” While stopping to urinate, a woman and her two children walk past them, which convinces Gerry 1 to abandon the ‘touristy’ sanctioned path for their own self-chosen path, after all, “All roads lead to….the thing.” To note, it is Gerry 1 who takes this decision. After walking and running toward the “thing” Gerry 1 rashly decides to abandon their goal (“fuck the thing”) and turn back. Gerry 2 agrees, “fuck the thing.” Left to their own youthful brashness and city-guile, they soon become lost in the unkind desert wilderness.

What is the “thing”? As Van Sant suggests in the film’s press kit, the “thing” can be seen as classical Hollywood cinema, which the two characters and the film’s style veers away from. The characters/film ‘strays’ from the sea of Hollywood conformity (of which Van Sant was himself trapped with Good Will Hunting (1997) and Finding Forrester [2000]) and becomes ‘lost’ in an oasis of personal, visionary cinema. The abrupt and impossible geographic changes in landscape, from woods and trees to mountains, to sand dunes, to flat desert, to salt flats, renders a spatial disorientation which transfers the characters’ sense of being lost onto the audience. (The film was stunningly shot by cinematographer Harry Savides in Argentina, Death Valley and parts of Utah. That this film was passed over by the Academy for best cinematography consideration was not so much a surprise as a shame.) And the deeper lost the two characters become, the more Van Sant’s camera strays from the human element to photograph the natural landscape.

People have been quick to pick up on Van Sant’s stated influences, directors Bela Tarr, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Chantal Ackerman, and have isolated the tendency to shoot in extreme long takes, emphasize real time, and with reduced plot. But an equally important formal element that Van Sant has borrowed from these great auteurs, notably Tarr and Tarkovsky, is their use of sound. Like these directors, Van Sant’s soundscape, beyond Arvo Pärt’s contemplative piano and violin motif, are sounds whose sources are impossible to pin down. Whistling high winds, thunder, cascading or careening water, industrial grinding, even the sound of a movie projector, are sounds heard at key moments in the film. Are these sounds diegetic or non-diegetic? Are they subjective sounds (as are the pixilated car travel shots)? These sounds become the aural equivalents of mirages by partnering the ontologically challenging visuals.

After lumbering along the Utah Salt flats like desert zombies, Gerry 1 and 2 seem to have arrived at the tether of their lifeline. This stunning single long take, which must consume the whole of a film magazine (about 10 minutes), is the film’s visual and aural transcendental climax. The camera follows the two Gerry’s from behind at a slight diagonal angle, as they take one painfully slow step after another. Gerry 1 is in the lead, with Gerry 2 a few paces behind. The camera’s movement matches their sloth-like pace. The light changes subtly from what appears twilight to dawn (another mise-en-scène touch influenced by Tarkovsky). They collapse to the whitish ground. After lying motionless for several minutes, Gerry 2 asks what must be one of the year’s most sarcastic lines, “So, how has the hike been so far?” Moments later Gerry 2 utters the film’s final and highly enigmatic line: “I’m leaving.” Gerry 2 slowly brings his arm across the small space between them and attempts to pull Gerry 1 toward him. Since this is, I believe, the only time there is any physical contact between them, the moment becomes charged with emotional and (perhaps) homoerotic energy. Gerry 1 reacts by forcing himself on top of Gerry 2 and begins to strangle him, perhaps to death, an act which raises a series of unanswered questions. After this unexpected moment, Gerry 1 has a subjective flash of a highway. He wakes up and begins to walk away from the motionless Gerry 2 toward the vista. The shot rack focuses to bring the distant background into focus: cars are seen driving along the highway. In an ironic refusal of their joint survival, the two Gerry’s have collapsed only a few hundred yards from the sanctity of the highway, with only Gerry 1 surviving.

But what are we to make of Gerry 1 strangling Gerry 2? There are at least three (of several) possible explanations. Explanation one is that Gerry 1 (Matt Damon) planned to murder Gerry 2 all along. This makes sense if you consider that he is the one who initiated their going off the trail on the pretence of avoiding tourists. He is also the ‘alpha’ male who makes most of the decisions about which direction and survival strategy to choose. Explanation two is that Gerry 2 was only moments from his death. This makes sense of his final cryptic words: “I’m leaving.” Gerry 1 realizes this and concludes that his only chance for survival is to forge on alone. Rather than letting Gerry 2 suffer and die alone, he commits a mercy killing. Explanation three is that there never was a Gerry 2 in the first place. The double usage of the name Gerry is similar to Edgar Allen Poe’s classic tale of the doppelganger “William Wilson.” In this regard the film carries an echo of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), another doppelganger tale where a character’s psyche splits into two physical personifications. Only in the case of Gerry, which begins in media res, we start the film with the psychic split already having occurred; and only at the end is the psychic split healed, when the double is ‘killed’ and the character’s single identity restored.

Many critics have interpreted the film as an existential fable or Beckett-like “Waiting For Godot” allegory, which works fine enough. I understand the film as a studied play on cinematic seeing and hearing, more accurately how the camera, character, and spectator ‘see and hear’ differently. I don’t think the location choice of the desert, land of illusion and mirage, was a coincidence. And as the film progresses the audience also becomes as ‘lost’ as the characters. We too can no longer trust what the characters or camera ‘sees.’ When the film begins there are two Gerry’s. At one point near the end of the film both the camera and the audience (though not necessarily the characters) see three Gerry’s. This is captured in a brilliant shot near the end of the film, after the two Gerry’s have been wandering foodless and waterless for two days and have begun to hallucinate pixilated car travel point of view shots and mirages. The camera is behind the seated Gerry 1 (frame left) and Gerry 2 (frame right). Between them in the distant background completely out of focus is an unrecognizable person walking toward the camera. At this point we assume this is either a) a new third character (unlikely) or b) a mirage seen by one of the Gerry’s. As the person continues nearing the foreground the camera pans to the right leaving Gerry 1 out of frame’s view. Now we see only Gerry 2 in the foreground with his back to us and the strange figure still approaching the camera from the background. As he reaches the foreground and comes into focus we see it is Gerry 1, who we learn has returned from checking on Gerry 2’s presumed sighting of their car and water, and confirms it was only a mirage. What are we now to think of the original Gerry 1 that only moments ago was seated in the left foreground of the shot (another Tarkovskian touch)? In keeping with Van Sant’s stated desire to render the audience as lost as the characters, we can conclude that this visage was the audience’s very own ‘mirage.’ And we are back to two Gerry’s.

The film’s final scene, after Gerry 1 dispatches Gerry 2 (or his double), cuts to a close-up of Gerry 1’s weathered face. He has become once again a passenger in a car. The camera pans slowly to the right, and we half-heartedly expect to see Gerry 2 at the driving wheel, as he was in the opening scene. Instead the camera reveals a young boy seated next to Gerry 1, and then a man, most likely the boy’s father, at the driver’s wheel. Now there is only one Gerry.

Gerry may not be garnering the respect and accolades it richly deserves, but time is usually the great equalizer. When the dust settles (excuse the pun), Gerry will take its place alongside a handful of other great ‘desert’ films: Greed (1925), Morocco (1931), The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), The Wages of Fear (1952), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Zabriskie Point (1971), Walkabaout (1971), The Passenger (1975), The Sheltering Sky (1990), The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), and Kandahar (2001). My hope is that the film achieves some level of box-office success so as to encourage other like-minded American directors to similarly inject a contemplative aesthetic into their style, and subsequently into popular cinema. The impetus for Offscreen to run three concurrent reviews of Gerry is to show our critical support for Van Sant’s vision, and offset the expected negative reaction from the mainstream press.

Gerry, or all Roads Lead to the “Thing”

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 7, Issue 3 / March 2003 Essays   Film Reviews   film style   film theory   gerry   gus van sant   peple_van_sant   sound