Search and Rescue Operations

Losing the Plot at Sundance

 PARK CITY, UTAH—In Gus Van Sant's Gerry, two guys on a nature hike get lost, wander about, prattle on and on, search for something, anything, turn desperate, get even more lost, and basically go mad. You might think of it as the emblematic film at Sundance this year. Despite the nonstop ka-chings of distribution deals being struck in condos around Park City, this year's 10-day movie marathon took shape as an anti-narrative of futile questing. An almost sheepish affair, the 2002 Sundance Film Festival seemed to exist in the shadows—of the still raw horrors that interrupted the industry's most recent congregation, at Toronto in September; of last year's unexpectedly robust lineup (which included In the Bedroom, Donnie Darko, Memento, and Christopher Munch's still distributor-less The Sleepy Time Gal); and of, well, Shadows. The 1959 John Cassavetes urtext screened as part of the "Sundance Collection," offering a potent reminder of American independent film's explosive beginnings while underscoring the infinite regression that has since taken hold.

Perhaps the most widely despised film of the festival, Gerry at its best communicates the sinus-clearing giddiness of a fresh start—a road to nowhere that, perversely enough, leads the director out of a creative cul-de-sac. It's hard at first to get past the gimmickry: Van Sant, whose most notable résumé entry of the last few years is his facsimile of Psycho, decides here to plunder more far-flung treasures. The roll call of shoutouts in the press notes—to Béla Tarr, Abbas Kiarostami, Chantal Akerman, and Jacques Tati—might have given pause to the throngs who packed the 1270-capacity Eccles Theater for the world premiere of "the new Matt Damon movie." Damon and Casey Affleck are the stars of Gerry, but this is no star vehicle—they barely speak, and when they do, improvise willfully inane dialogue. Using impeccably composed and choreographed long takes (only about 100 shots over 100 minutes), Van Sant and his cinematographer, Harris Savides, reduce the actors to sacrificial lambs, thoroughly roughhoused by the forces of nature. We see them trudging up craggy inclines, flailing against ferocious gales, squinting through heat waves, stranded atop boulders, dwarfed by sand dunes and salt flats. (The film was shot in the wilds of Argentina and Death Valley.) The director fashions absurdist sight gags from the lopsided matchup between man and the elements, then inches the movie into a realm of confrontational abstraction, simultaneously evoking an overwhelming thereness and a quasi-Warholian nothingness. (Van Sant, it's worth noting, invoked Warhol in attempting to justify the Hitchcock carbon copy.) Beautiful as it is, Gerry is less an object of contemplation than a pitiless black hole.

"It's a metaphor for life," a satisfied patron behind me concluded. But the majority of the audience, it seemed, had been too busy fidgeting or making for the exits to venture any theories. Hell hath no fury like a Sundance crowd challenged. Variety's reviewer, not just bored but actively hostile, condemned the movie to a purgatory in "high art venues in France and elsewhere." Thanks to ThinkFilm, the new company headed by former Lions Gate execs Mark Urman and Jeff Sackman, "elsewhere" will include at least some American cities. (Maybe they can market it as the new Matt Damon movie.)

At least 15 films were picked up at Sundance this year (all fiction features; an overview of the festival's documentary entries, many of which are headed for television in the coming months, will appear next week). The hubbub of activity notwithstanding, many remarked that the prevailing mood wasn't so much predatory as vaguely desperate. Recession-denying buyers may have believed they were spending their way to economic health, some presumably still wincing over Memento (which was passed on by numerous companies and has since raked in $25 million) and intent this year on sniffing out the next jackpot. For old times' sake, there was even one obscenely inflationary bidding war: Gary Winick's digital-video comedy Tadpole (made for well under half a million bucks) reportedly attracted matching $5 million overtures from Miramax, Fine Line, and Fox Searchlight, eventually going to Harvey Weinstein (who, conveniently away from New York while Talk was being muzzled, was trumpeting a return to his indie roots).

Needless to say, the cost-benefit methods applied by mini-major acquisition types leave a lot of deserving films on the wrong side of the bottom line. (It's practically a rule of thumb that the worse the movies are in any given year, the more money is thrown about.) The most impressive feature by far in the dramatic competition was still without a distributor at the end of the festival; it was also shut out of the prizes. The Slaughter Rule, a debut effort by writer-director twins Alex and Andrew Smith, is a rich and complicated tale of compassion in a cold climate. Ryan Gosling, following his breakthrough role as a Jewish neo-Nazi in last year's Sundance hit The Believer, plays a Montana teenager who is cut from his football team within a few days of his estranged father's death. David Morse's wounded, garrulous loner, who coaches a six-man squad he calls the Renegades, elbows his way into the kid's life, filling a void but also stirring up new anxieties.

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