Release: Friday, October 9, 2015
Written by: John Steppling
Directed by: Josh Evans
This piece is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. I’d like to thank James for giving me the opportunity to give it a look!
Death in the Desert is yet another film about the failure that is Las Vegas, not as a city or an institution, but as a place to start relationships. What at first seems like a metaphorical title for a way of life perpetually disregarded as ‘rock bottom’ turns into an apt description of one tiny thing that happens in the movie. I wish it weren’t so literal; that way I could pretend to defend the creativity of such a title.
Josh Evans adapts true crime journalist Cathy Scott‘s novel about an heir to a casino on the neon-lit Strip whose fatal drug overdose in 1998 had been contested as a murder at the hands of his live-in girlfriend. Names and likenesses have been changed to protect identities, with Michael Madsen playing the seedy Ray Easler (read: Ted Binion), a second-generation casino owner with millions of dollars in silver that he’s trying to stash away in the desert, and Shayla Beesley as former exotic dancer Kim Davis who falls for Ray’s charm.
The story focuses on the tension between two apparently lonely and wayward people, separated by a rather substantial age gap, who find comfort in one another’s own problems. The relationship begins out of nowhere. Admittedly, there are several factors working against the story, including some not so great acting — Madsen’s okay when he’s not yelling — and aimless directing. Death in the Desert is a film with neither style nor much substance, mumbling its themes (Las Vegas is filled with lonely, broken people; never trust a man who doesn’t look at all trustworthy) while offering occasionally flashy shots of western sunsets and setting its stars against the nightlife to give the impression the film is truly immersed in its environs.
Unfortunately this isn’t the extent of the issues. The navel gazing and awkward line delivery is less problematic as more technical aspects, such as editing. The editing is disastrous, giving the film a choppy, contrived pace that lacks both rhythm and in worse cases, even logic. In fact some transitions are so careless and random you swear you’ve missed something and want to go back and rewind. But then the jump happens again and now it’s obvious. Either the crew experienced a stunted post-production or there wasn’t one at all. The package is so slapdash intervening circumstances almost had to have come into play at some point.
Madsen is a strong presence, but he’s not good enough to make Death in the Desert watchable. He displays the kind of abusive behavior towards his “girl” you’ve seen a hundred times over; there’s nothing remarkable about his emotional outbursts, except for how random they are. If you’re particularly cynical you might even consider his involvement an additional sleight, at one point left to wonder what it was about this script that caught his eye. But then, another revelation: this was a favor to a friend. Still, it’s a credit to Madsen that he doesn’t completely phone in his performance. His toughness, even if it’s slightly manufactured at times, is welcomed in a story that really needs life injected into it.
In short, this breathtakingly bad film’s stars (and interesting subject) deserve more than what they get here. Death in the Desert will leave you feeling just as dejected and cold as a bad weekend in Vegas.
Recommendation: A few edits shy of a good draft, Death in the Desert features some of the worst editing this reviewer has ever seen in a movie, a setback that unfortunately is glaring enough for someone like me to pick up on (I’m not one to usually complain about ticky-tacky stuff like scene transitions). But in the interest of full disclosure, it’s also a production that could use some inspiration on most every front to become something that’s worth spending time with.
Running Time: 80 mins.
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