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Before ultimately profaning the Bela Tarr aesthetic with the maddeningly obvious Elephant (2003), Gus Van Sant mined the Hungarian filmmaker's sensibilities to deliver Gerry (2002), an unexpected near-masterpiece that was greeted with jeers at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, and as a result was barely released (if only the same could be said of former Park City fave Happy, Texas.) That's quite an achievement for a film headlined by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, but after ten minutes it quickly becomes clear why the title sat on the shelf for a year. A tale of two young slacker-like beings named Gerry who get lost in the desert, there is no exposition, little dialogue, and only the quest for water constitutes the "narrative." There is a vague undercurrent of resentment that exists between the two men, but it's never explored to any satisfactory extent; instead, Van Sant and cinematographer Harris Savides rely on the juxtaposition of the aimless movement of the two characters with the barren, sedentary landscape to draw the viewer's interest. This results in long, widescreen tracking shots of the pair trudging through their spare surroundings, occasionally scored to great minimalist effect to the increasingly popular music of modern classical composer Arvo Part (his Alina has turned up in numerous trailers, as well as in Guy Ritchie's Swept Away.) For those willing to follow Van Sant's lead, it's a triumphant piece of formalism that manages to be oddly gripping despite the utter lack of incident. Early on, the film drives forward with a youthful exuberance as the boys carelessly wander off the beaten path to reach an unnamed destination. They joke about a "Wheel of Fortune" contestant's cluelessness and engage in an impromptu footrace. When they first realize that they are lost, they laugh at their folly. But when another day passes with no sign of civilization and, worse, no water, a sense of desperation slowly begins to set in. Where a conventional film would delve into issues of basic survival, Van Sant heads off in a surreal direction meant to mirror the characters' growing delirium. Daringly, the pace slackens, and it appears that the Gerrys' predicament seems cruelly hopeless. Some may be turned off by Van Sant's imprecise conclusion, but its elusiveness seems perfectly attuned to the film's wide open nature. The worst that can be said about Gerry is that it's all empty technique, but one shouldn't mistake its massive ambiguity for meaninglessness. Thanks to the resourcefulness of Damon and Affleck, there's a vital human gravity that anchors the film and makes it gripping even when it's just the two of them falling in and out of step in a tightly framed two-shot. Though their improvisations aren't terribly inventive (the best exchange involves Damon's Gerry worrying about making mating animals self-conscious), they're very natural. In a way, it's refreshing to watch two talented actors refusing to engage in shallow one-upmanship (if that's your thing, see Steven Soderbergh's painful Full Frontal), and their restraint signals a commitment to the filmmaker's uncompromising vision that helps draw the viewer in. By not forcing profundity, it actually sneaks up on Van Sant, and turns the film into an unusually thrilling piece of large scale experimentation by an established director. It's his most fully realized work since Drugstore Cowboy, and one of the year's best films. Buena Vista presents Gerry in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette entitled "Salt Lake Van Sant," which is worth watching if only to see the endless dolly track set down to capture one of the film's lengthier takes. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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