I received the screener for “Death in the Desert” on behalf of Osiris Entertainment.
Michael Madsen is one of those actors that doesn’t do a whole lot of large-scale films unless his buddy Quentin Tarantino is involved in the project in some shape or form. That is not a knock on Madsen at all as I am a huge fan but it is plainly obvious that QT films are where he excels and gets the most recognition in his career. Hell, Reservoir Dogs could have made him a household name. He was the iconic Mr. Blonde, the jewel thief who famously cut off a cop’s ear to the tune of “Stuck in the Middle with You.” He can be charming, gruff, intense and sometimes all three at once but he is always interesting to watch. It is just unfortunate that he is stuck in a film that meanders from scene to scene without any energy or purpose.
The film’s plot is based on the true story of casino owner Ray Easley. Ray (Madsen) falls for a local stripper named Kim Davis (played by Shayla Beesley) and convinces her to quit that life so that she can spend it with him while he pampers her. Easley, however, is down on his luck and has turned to hard drugs and alcohol to deal with several things in his life, most notable of which is that he will never measure up to the greatness of his father. When Easley decides to bury money in the desert so that his family can not get their hands on it, he hires Matt (played by John Palladino), who ends catching Kim’s eye and they fall in love. The plot is not bad; it’s just the execution that leaves something to be desired.
There are definitely some positive things to say about the film and I would definitely not say that it is a complete wash. The visuals of Las Vegas are quite stunning and we do see a sort-of different side of the city that we don’t normally get to see in films with this setting. I can not stress that enough. The visuals of this locale are stunningly beautiful at times, especially when it looks very bleak. The camera work and its use of soft focus and pull-focusing can be a bit distracting at times but it also works on a certain level when it pertains to the story and the scene in question. Michael Madsen is also a strong lead and while I don’t feel it’s one of his best performances, it’s certainly a good one and seems to be one that he puts a lot of effort into despite a weak script at times. The story is also slow in places but the deliberate nature of the pace does make sense and it allows time to harp on the more emotional aspects of the film.
As for the rest of the film, this is where it goes off the rails a bit. For starters, the supporting cast is rather weak. Shayla Beesley is a very attractive and likeable young woman that fits the role but I didn’t really feel any chemistry between her and Madsen; it all felt a bit forced. Paz De La Huerta (who looks incredibly different than I remember) is fairly weak in a small supporting role as Kim’s friend and confidante. None of her lines sound authentic and she tries but it might be a bigger fault of the script than performance in this case. John Palladino doesn’t really do or say much and feels fairly one-note. I didn’t buy him suddenly falling for Kim or vice-versa. Roxy Saint fares a bit better as a fellow stripper, who belts out a cover of “Only the Lonely,” a song that fits this film’s overarching theme quite well. Aside from the song though, she doesn’t really stick out in any way and her strange dialect is distracting at times.
Another aspect that hurt the film a great deal is the overuse of voiceover narration from Madsen. While the man does have an awesome voice for narrating and just in general, there was no need to have everything spelled out for the audience using this device. It is somewhat of an overused device to begin with anyway but here it just becomes tiresome going back to it after seemingly every scene. Sometimes it even overlays while we see the characters talking and presumably, it almost seems like what we can’t hear them saying is potentially more interesting than the narration itself!
It’s an okay and, at times, frustrating film because it had potential to be a lot better but at least it wasn’t a total trainwreck. Director Josh Evans makes a noble effort here but ultimately comes up short.
* (Brutal; the worst rating)
** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)
*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)
**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)
***** (Flawless; a true achievement)