Grade: A

Few films are going to divide viewers into hostile camps as much as Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry.” For some–probably the majority–the deceptively simple, almost preternaturally slow tale of two young men who get lost in the desert after straying from a wilderness trail will be as laborious to sit through as the journey appears to be for the characters. But for more adventurous filmgoers, those willing to surrender themselves to its lulling pace and visual poetry, it may well be an almost transcendent experience. I fall decisively into the latter category.

You should be able to tell where you’ll wind up from the opening sequence alone. To the spare, hypnotically beautiful chamber music of Arvo Part, the camera lingers on a beat-up car traveling along an otherwise deserted highway, cutting periodically to a two-shot of Gerry I and Gerry II (Casey Affleck and Matt Damon) as they’re carried along, their bodies swaying in unison to the rhythm of the road. If you find this sequence impossibly long and tedious, the whole film will probably strike you the same way. If, on the other hand, it mesmerizes you with its stark beauty and effortless grace, the remainder of the picture is likely to entrance you as well. Before too long, the two dudes leave the car behind and begin following the well-trod trail on foot, but shortly they decide to take an unmarked route and become hopelessly lost–a circumstance for which, without provisions, warm clothing or a compass, they’re completely unprepared. From here on the film consists mostly of a series of extended shots of the duo trudging ever more wearily across the forbidding landscape, desperately trying to locate a highway and help. Some of these scenes are visually amazing: one close-up of the pair marching side by side, their heads bobbing in synchronized motion for a time but then diverging, is a quiet commentary on how the guys are separating emotionally as their trek continues. The long, repetitive walking sequences are punctuated by occasional bursts of delicious, clearly improvised dialogue, in which the two Gerrys are revealed as fellows with adolescent mentalities absorbed in the ephemera of popular culture; a couple of these conversations are extremely funny–for example, a surrealistic near- monologue that Affleck delivers about a video game he played recently. There are also wonderfully absurdist interludes in which the film’s kinship to Samuel Beckett’s plays about the existential dilemma of modern man becomes most clear; the most notable example is a marvelous episode in which Affleck finds himself improbably stranded atop an isolated rock and Damon agrees to prepare what the duo ludicrously refer to as a “dirt mattress”–a phrase typical of the nonsensical jargon they regularly use–for him to jump on. (It ends with a simple special effect that’s far more effective than the elaborate ones found in the biggest Hollywood blockbusters.)

As “Gerry” reaches its final act, however, it becomes clear that it’s not merely a cinematic homage to Beckett’s distinctive one-acters. As one of the guys begs for release and the other reaches a hard decision (and his destination), the picture can be read as a story of maturation, the tale of a young man’s leaving childishness behind, though not without great pain and loss, and finally growing up–a point made in a poignant moment in which a survivor looks at the young boy in the car that’s picked him up as though he were seeing his former self. In hindsight, then, “Gerry” could be interpreted as depicting a metaphorical vision quest, in which a boy overcomes not nature but his weaker half.

Of course, that’s only one possible reading; the real wonder of Van Sant’s extraordinarily assured and masterfully executed film is that it throws open the door to extended discussion and debate. Its success owes a good deal to the gorgeous locales and Harris Savides’ magnificent cinematography as well as Part’s ghostly, ruminative score. But the picture is also a triumph for Affleck and Damon, whose deadpan delivery of the lines they’ve helped to craft is perfect and who look to have actually suffered the kind of misery the two Gerrys do as their story unfolds.

So viewers searching for something conventional and safe would be best advised to look elsewhere. But those willing to venture off the beaten cinematic path may find this visually dazzling, intellectually stimulating film a rare and wondrous discovery.