Gus Van Sant’s latest film Gerry depicts two young men who set out for a hike in Death Valley carrying neither backpacks nor water bottles. Their lone sustenance consists of one can of soda pop apiece and a pack of cigarettes. These apparent novices—who lord their ability to crack puzzles on Wheel of Fortune well ahead of the game show’s contestants—get lost amid the Southwestern brush, and over the movie’s hour and 43-minute course we watch them unravel.
For any serious student of film, Gerry is a must-see. Harris Savides’ compositionally astounding cinematography has rightly earned him comparison to Ansel Adams. The way Savides captures light shifting through rugged terrain, especially in early dawn sequences, creates an enveloping sense of wonder and terror. Kudos as well to Leslie Shatz’s thoughtful sound design that complements, deepens the riddle that Van Sant presents. And the director succinctly chose an icily minimalist work by Arvo Pärt, the plaintive violin and piano duet Spiegel im Spiegel, to accompany a lonely drive over barren highways in the extended opening shot. (Pärt’s title translates as “mirror within a mirror.”) Additionally, Fred Frith supplies dissonant electronica for the film’s hallucinatory final third. Rich in texture and mood, Gerry shimmers as a visual and aural poem.
There’s just one problem: it’s empty. The director’s themes and his characters are as hollowed out as they can be without collapsing. The two men, both named Gerry, are ably played by a touchingly sweet Casey Affleck and an expressionless Matt Damon. What little talk they exchange leaks out like code. Damon remarks that their campfire is “hot on my front and cold on my back”; Affleck attributes feelings of “body shame” to desert animals mating in the wild. And when one of the men—parched, weary, and beset by mirages—finally extends an arm in tender embrace to the other, the rejection of compassion takes no less brutal a form than murder.
And why—why!—does Van Sant clothe Affleck in a shirt that has an enormous gold star in the center? I spent most of the film’s duration trying to deduce the symbolism of that gold star. Does it mean that he’s been a good boy? Van Sant has read his Camus and his Beckett, too, and possibly watched Picnic at Hanging Rock half a dozen times; he hasn’t devised a means to make Gerry’s homoerotic underpinnings as alive and kicking for us as they so clearly are for him.
Elephant reunites Gus Van Sant with the two craftsmen who made his failed film Gerry such a marvel, technically. Cinematographer Harris Savides and sound designer Leslie Shatz once again collaborate, and this time the results are magnificent. Taking the Columbine shootings as its subtext, Elephant opens on an untroubled expanse of blue sky. The blue gradually darkens to pitch black; distant sounds of a game on a playing field pipe on. Right away, the filmmakers have found beauty in the ominous.
I’ve never seen a film about violence as tender as this. Tender in its treatment of characters (most of whom I grew a little bit fond before they were gunned down) and respectful of an audience not wanting bloodshed used as pornography for the umpteenth occasion. Van Sant splatters red in only two deaths; the point made, the rest of the killings are heard but not seen. It’s a brave choice, but one consistent with the mise-en-scène throughout Elephant: the actors in the frame often aren’t the ones talking—they listen silently as voices swirl around them.
An ordinary film on this subject might begin by introducing the killers. Van Sant allows us to spend some time with the victims first. Among them, the director’s favorite (I suspect) is the photographer Eli (Elias McConnell), whom we observe in detail as he composes images and develops film. The camera practically makes love to this dimpled young Portlander, and in the extended tracking shots that trail Eli through endless hallways, Savides renders the background interiors in soft, gauzy focus, transmuting fluorescent light strikingly, almost hallucinogenically, while keeping Eli’s profile sharply drawn. These scenes swoosh with an undercurrent of dread. They may well be the most unnerving (and exhilarating) tracking shots since Angie Dickinson roamed museum corridors in search of sex in Dressed to Kill.
Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen), the two boys who bear arms against their classmates, are intriguing opposites. In the film’s most powerful scene, the camera languorously pans Alex’s bedroom as Alex, at the piano, plays the slow movement from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata while Eric, a peroxide butch, picks off videogame victims on a laptop. The audaciousness gets better. Eric later sidles up to Alex in the shower, exclaiming, “I’ve never even kissed anybody, have you?” They engage in a joyless make-out session, having greeted the mail order arrival of their assault rifles with greater euphoria.
Elephant won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last spring, and this fallible indicator of quality is, for a change, right on the mark. It is the best work Van Sant has ever done. Elephant shows a command of the medium not present even in his supposedly halcyon days of Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. – NPT