Sunday, August 14, 2022

Getting Gerried by Nature: Gerry

Matt Damon and Casey Affleck in Gerry (2002).

This review contains major spoilers for Gus Van Sant's Gerry (2002).

In 2002, Gus Van Sant followed his aggressively mediocre Finding Forrester (2000) with the aggressively experimental Gerry (2002). It doesn’t have opening titles, and for most of its 103 minutes the only two people we see are Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, who both play guys named Gerry. (I’m going to use the actors’ names to avoid confusion.) There’s even a running joke about how the name “Gerry” gets turned into a vague, all-purpose word. (Affleck, Damon, and Van Sant co-wrote as well as co-editing.) A few examples: “I crow’s-nested up here to scout-about the ravine ’cause I thought maybe you gerried the rendezvous”; “We could have just bailed early, you know. There were so many gerrys along the way”; “And then we gerried off to the animal tracks.” The first 20 minutes are just long takes of Matt and Casey driving and then walking in the California semi-desert with minimal dialogue.

What makes Gerry worth watching is in how it perfectly captures what it’s like to get lost in the wilderness. (As someone who once got lost in the wilderness, I should know.) It starts with the underpreparation. Matt wants to show Casey something at the end of a wilderness trail (a helpful sign says “WILDERNESS TRAIL”), and it looks like they drive all day to get there just as the sun is setting. They’re not dressed for hiking: sneakers, chinos, t-shirt, and something long-sleeved over or under it. Instead of water, they each take a can of beer. We already know what’s going to happen because nothing within the frame is distinguishable as a trail. (The cinematography is by Harris Savides.)

A few times Matt, who’s leading the way, loses his bearings, but he quickly chooses a new direction. Just before they admit they’re lost, a family with young kids passes by in the opposite direction. The Gerrys don’t know it, but it’s their last hope.

Feeling like they’re almost there – wherever “there” is – they start to race, and after racing they wrestle. After walking some more, they finally admit they’re lost. Simple enough; just turn back. But when they do, nothing looks familiar.

Perspective is a funny thing. As you advance, you think to remember what you have seen; but you forget that everything looks different from the reverse angle. It’s why experienced hikers tie ribbons to prominent trees as they go along, something that the Gerrys haven’t done.

They make a fire and shoot the shit before bed. When you first realize you’re lost out there, your rational brain knows it’s bad – no gear, no water – but your lizard brain feels like, as long as you have a plan, everything will work out okay. So you have to rough it for a night, no big deal. You’ll find your way in the morning.

The next day, they seek high ground to try to get their bearings. At this point they have reached the mountain foothills, so they decide to split up and look around, see if anything looks familiar. This time, at least, they remember to set a meeting place and time.

When the time comes, they find that they have misunderstood each other, with Matt waiting in a valley while Casey stays high up. Hiking takes preparation, and so does communication. If you make plans while you’re not in the mindset to make plans, those plans are going to be fuzzy. Fortunately, Casey sees Matt and calls him over.

A scene from Gerry (2002).

But wait, there’s more. Casey’s gotten himself stuck atop a boulder. Matt reasons that if Casey could get up, he should be able to get down. Alas, nature doesn’t work that way – just ask any cat stuck in a tree. That’s another thing to keep in mind when trekking through the wilderness: make sure that, once you find your way back, you can actually travel it.

Matt decides to try to create a mound of soil to cushion Casey’s fall; from the way he digs and moves it, we can tell that he’s not much of an outdoorsman. What ensues is a farcical dialogue about whether the mound is high and soft enough, but this, too, is realistic. When it’s your life on the line, for sure you’re going to hedge and stall, maybe even kvetch and whine. It’s only funny in retrospect, when everyone’s safe at home.

With a bit of CGI help, Casey makes it safely to the ground; but unfortunately, neither Gerry has seen anything like a way back. As they continue walking, Casey discovers some animal tracks, and reasons that they should lead to water, if not the highway. This kind of half-cocked thinking is another hallmark of getting lost unprepared. We have all read stories or seen films about hiking in the wilderness that give supposedly useful information, like on what side of the tree moss grows, or how to use the sun to tell direction and even distance. But without much practical experience, few of us can readily put such notions into practice – at least not correctly. As expected, the tracks lead to nowhere.

The film then dissolves into a blur of aimless walking, dehydration-induced hallucination, and mirages. Only when it’s far too late do the Gerrys actually sit down and try to work out the cardinal directions for how they got to the trailhead.

Near the end of the film, we see them trudging across the expanse of a salt flat (without sunglasses, of course), and we know that this is it: either they’ll make it, or they won’t. The film is experimental enough to leave the ending in doubt.

Casey, trailing a few feet behind Matt, stops. He can’t go on. Rather than desiccate to death, he asks Matt to strangle him. After much haggling and remorse, Matt does. Only then does he see, far off at the very edge of the salt flat, a car, driving from one side to the other of his vision. He reaches the highway and flags it down. The last shot is of Damon sitting in the backseat of a minivan (a minivan!), gazing out on the nature that killed his friend.

My own travail didn’t have a deus ex machina, but the endpoint felt equally surreal. After crashing through the mountain woods in growing hysteria, I broke through a line of shrubs to find myself in someone’s backyard, on the edge of their well-maintained lawn. The nature that tried to kill me was now tamed.

It may feel like an experimental whim, but Gerry is a meticulously realistic portrayal of its events. It’s the events themselves that are so extraordinary.

CJ Sheu has a PhD in contemporary American fiction from National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cj_sheu.

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