While David Gordon Green is clearly finding his way—next up, an adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces—Gus Van Sant has just as clearly lost his. I say this ruefully, for after seeing My Own Private Idaho, whose scenes with the late River Phoenix are some of the most heart-rending in modern movies, I fully expected Van Sant to become the leading director of his generation. But over the last decade, he seems to have lost the ability to think and feel at the same time. He waded into sentimental goo with the shallow Good Will Hunting, followed that with his rigorous, shot-by-shot remake of Psycho (it's not for nothing that he admires Andy Warhol), and then plunged back into the schmaltz with Finding Forrester, essentially Good Will Hunting for Dummies.
Now comes Gerry, and Van Sant is again pursuing his taste for abstract experimentation. This minimalist two-hander tells the story of a couple of guys named Gerry (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who go for a hike in the desert wilderness. In their private lingo, they use the word Gerry to mean "fuck up," and that's precisely what they do. Abandoning the footpath to avoid all the "fanny packs and single moms," they promptly discover they're lost—and free to spend the rest of the movie walking, bickering, climbing rocks for a lookout, desperately seeking a route that will get them out alive.
Van Sant has suggested that Gerry is about masculinity, and despite his characters' incommunicativeness—or maybe because of it—you can tell he's gesturing in that direction. As their anxiety grows, Damon's Gerry gets more and more aggressively male, while Affleck's Gerry comes to seem increasingly "feminine," passive, dependent. Still, despite such intimations of both their subterranean homoerotic feelings and the terror such feelings induce, Van Sant ultimately reveals so little about this odd couple that we frankly don't give a damn what happens to them. Nor, apparently, does he. Their relationship pays off in a climax (straight out of von Stroheim's Greed) that's so ambiguous that those around me in the theater quite rightly sighed with annoyance.
Like Psycho, Gerry is ultimately an exercise in cinematic form, and those who enjoy such things will find their rewards not in the wisp of a story (which makes All the Real Girls seem positively Tolstoyan) but in Harris Savides' radiant photography and in the ravishing magnificence of clouds spilling over the Utah mountaintops. Partly inspired by the work of Bela Tarr, the Hungarian gloom-meister famous for his long takes, Gerry is a study in different kinds of sunlight, the physical relationship of tiny human bodies to overpowering landscapes, and the evocative power of showing events in real time: The movie's best scene is a funny 10-minute bit in which Affleck's timorous Gerry is trapped atop a high rock while his bolder pal tries to get him to jump. Watching this burst of knockabout Beckett, I was reminded how good Van Sant used to be at creating juicy, enjoyable characters, and found myself wondering why he can no longer get genuine human feeling and formal experimentation into the same film. It's not as if he's lost his independent spirit—why else make Gerry? Yet he seems to have lost his faith, if not in the world then in his dreams, for why else would a man of such gifts make a film so dessicated? Perhaps Van Sant himself doesn't have the answer. He is, after all, telling a story about being caught in the desert and not knowing your way back home.
All the Real Girls was written and directed by David Gordon Green; produced by Jean Doumanian and Lisa Muskat; and stars Paul Schneider, Zooey Deschanel and Patricia Clarkson. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine;Gerry was directed by Gus Van Sant; written by Casey Affleck, Matt Damon and Van Sant; produced by Dany Wolf; and stars Damon and Affleck. Now playing at the Nuart, West LA.