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Take a Hike

Gerry survives nicely on scant dialogue and ample images

You know how boys love to play soldier? How they get stern-faced and march out to destroy an enemy whom they believe needs destroying? Well, actors are into that, too. Sometimes they soldier on even when Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson isn't around to help them frown determinedly. Such is the case with Gerry, wherein two nameless guys (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) wander steadfastly through the merciless desert after getting lost. The project is saturated with glumness, and its weird blend of absurd existentialism and mounting panic have earned it a likening to Beckett and The Blair Witch Project. There's elegance and grace here, fostering an opportunity to reflect upon why men get so dutiful about being down. It's worth the hike.

From the top, director Gus Van Sant (Psycho -- no, the other one) seeks to surprise our senses. A plangent violin sings as we travel for what seems like forever (but is actually about five minutes) with a Mercedes driving along desert roads. Is this the most boring racing game ever made? A dusty, low-budget homage to The Shining (sans helicopter shadow)? Are those real lens flares? Will this be like The Hitcher or Wild at Heart? No, kind of, yes and no. As the American Southwest rolls out, we're given time to depressurize and enter a much more meditative state than most current movies allow.

By the time the car stops and we meet our hapless protagonists, Van Sant has made us hungry for information. It's a subtle, effective conceit he employs throughout the film. The two leads are almost the only people we see, yet during their apathetic nature walk and subsequent shuffle into oblivion we're offered precious little insight into their respective personalities. They dress like '90s Gap ads and they punctuate lengthy silences with random asides about cheesy quiz shows and mythic role-playing games, but their MOs are as vague to them as they are to us. Whereas most modern films plunk characters' names into clunky exposition or even still frames with titles, here we only learn that these bumblers refer to each other as "Gerry," an affectionately insulting nickname.

Openly admitting to the combined influences of Andrei Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr and R.W. Fassbinder, Van Sant does not attempt to make Gerry a conventional narrative film, so don't go in expecting one. Instead, he wants these two incredibly clueless "Gerrys" to lead you gradually into the in-between feelings of life's drama, in particular its pensive dread. His tactic is to employ really long shots of the two guys walking through the desiccated wilderness, accompanied by thirst, exaggerated tumbleweed infestations, piano tinkles and sound effects (mostly sinister wind). How much you want to stare at grubby Matt and Casey is up to you -- apparently the "sexiest man alive" was busy -- but Van Sant's frames (with cinematographer Harris Savides) are artful and geometrically inspired, and his rhythms can be fascinating. The urge to mock the tedium is neutralized when one starts appreciating how the guys' lockstep footfalls start in sync, then slowly slip out. Sounds crazy, but it's a reminder of the essential miracle of moving pictures with sound.

The trio is credited with "writing" the ad-libbed film, but the dialogue from tough-talking Damon and mush-mouthed Affleck consists mostly of glib, deadpan toss-offs with peculiar survivalist terms like "dirt-mattress" thrown in. Every syllable just leads them and us toward a consciously obtuse revelation about…what? Confusion? Surrender? Vampirism? It's tough to tell. Besides, all involved seem aware that the dialogue scarcely matters, although when Affleck sits in the bleak night and speaks about offending Demeter during a role-playing game -- clearly not comprehending the weight of his own metaphor -- it's a nice touch.

The film's vitality springs almost entirely from its starkness and absence of humanity, the very elements that made Blair Witch effective in our overstimulated age. Speaking cinematically, it's as if these youths have fallen into the wasted remains of Lawrence's Arabia or planet Tatooine, with the promise of imaginative adventure long spent by previous generations. However, at the 30-minute mark there is a parched mountain bearing a remarkable resemblance to George Lucas's lovable, semi-aquatic character Squid Head. Could the ironic symbology be intentional?

Of course not. This is a simple, earnest film, and a flawed one too (the guys' attempts at "survival" would win them lifetime Darwin Awards for ineptitude), but it's strange that Van Sant's film has been doing shelf time since 2001. Here he has produced the cinematic equivalent of a quiet, scenic grunge album, with all the rage of that musical era turned inside out. As our heroes soldier on, we become aware that their only enemy is meaninglessness, and that their enemy lies within.

 
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