Two guys get lost in the desert in Gus Van Sant's conceptually bold and rapturously beautiful Gerry, a minimalist landscape film that's unlike anything on the American independent scene. After squandering his immense talent on drearily conventional Hollywood projects like Finding Forrester and Good Will Hunting, Van Sant retreats to a plot so spare it couldn't fill a haiku, leaving him to conjure images with the simple, elemental force of silent movies. Since its debut at last year's Sundance Film Festival, screenings of Gerry have led to a steady stream of walkouts, but that can only be expected from a movie that's not a slave to narrative, that instead adopts a rigorous visual language that may strike some as a foreign tongue. Van Sant challenges viewers to recalibrate their perceptions and sink into the film's hypnotic rhythms, but he makes the transition easier with eye-catching topography, intricate sound design, and spare, improvised dialogue that bristles with offhand wit. With apologies to Samuel Beckett and Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr (Sátántangó), his two clearest influences, Van Sant mounts his own theatre of the absurd on an ever-changing stage, covering unnaturally diverse terrain that shifts from arid canyons to desert sand to the eerily abstract surface of a science-fiction movie. Gliding toward a "Wilderness Trail" in a hand-me-down Mercedes, Matt Damon and Casey Affleck are two blinkered young men who embark on a hike that seems oddly joyless and obligatory, the wan gesture of city boys trying to get in touch with nature. Once they wander off the well-worn path, they lack the wherewithal to find their way back; the harder they try to "crow's nest" for water sources and signs of civilization, the more they're swallowed by a vast expanse of unsullied land. Before the situation grows dire, Van Sant and his cast riff brilliantly on the often-hilarious disconnect between man and nature, with Damon and Affleck as a dumb-and-dumber duo that improvises half-baked solutions from their scant knowledge of the natural world. In a particularly funny scene, Damon tries to rescue a marooned Affleck from the top of a canyon rock by fashioning a "dirt mattress" (collected by his "shirt basket") to break his fall. As thirst and heat exhaustion take their toll, the film slows down in kind, marked by long wordless stretches that give the impression of time grinding to an excruciating crawl, with no progress to validate its passing. Movies rarely demand that sort of patience, but Van Sant and ace cinematographer Harris Savides compensate with location shooting (partly in Argentina, mostly in Death Valley) that's alternately magisterial and abstract, yet always mesmerizing in its variety and expressiveness. Having floundered throughout much of the '90s, Van Sant returns with his most daring and auspicious film to date, an existential comedy that slowly morphs into a doleful statement about a generation that has lost its compass.
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