Gus Van Sant's Gerry is a very slow and beautiful and compelling movie about a couple of brash dudes, played by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, who get lost in the stony pink grandeur of the California desert. Casually, they slip off the trail and try to get back, only to discover that Death Valley, in its beckoning vastness, has swallowed them up. The young men, who call each other by the mutual nickname Gerry, keep thinking that they're going to find their way out. They hike up and down rock formations, certain that the highway is over the next crest, but before long it's clear that they aren't getting anywhere.
Van Sant, who crafts their nomadic voyage out of spectacular desert vistas and very little dialogue, teases the audience -- intimidates us, really -- with the prospect that the movie, too, is going to end up wandering into oblivion. Yet if you let yourself get all worked into a lather over whether Van Sant has made some sort of ultimate, showboating anticommercial art dare, you probably won't enjoy ''Gerry'' very much. The movie is on some level a stunt, but it has the fervent, sun-dazed pull of an authentic experience unfolding in real time, with glints of drama, comedy, and terror mixed into the almost-but-not-quite tedium.
There's one very funny sequence -- it's like a primal act of Stone Age slapstick -- in which Damon tries to talk Affleck into jumping off a towering rock. Later, after days with no water, the two skulk along like ghosts at the gates of purgatory, and the shot is so transfixing that you scarcely want it to end. As the two shove and bicker and finally let down their guards, we realize that we're watching a male love story about a couple of quintessentially detached American jocks who can allow their souls to connect only through disaster and death. ''Gerry'' meanders, all right, but by the end of the movie, you know that you've been somewhere.