Cinematic Releases: Death in the Desert

Andrew gives us an early review of the Michael Madsen neo-noir, Death in the Desert

"That hat...that f**king hat..."
Michael Madsen seems destined to play Budd from Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill for all eternity.  With his stoic and crusty figure, his s**tkicker hat and slow western walk with a swagger and cowboy boots, it's difficult to discern how much acting is actually going on or, in other words, required of Mr. Madsen.  Even his most recent pairing with Tarantino in The Hateful Eight seems to channel Budd in the role of Joe Gage.  In the right part Madsen doing his thing, which seems to be largely improvisational, can be magic for the film.  In the case of the Las Vegas set neo-noir Death in the Desert, Madsen and his scratchy and aged voiceover narration are about all the film has going for it.  Loosely based on the true crime account of the Ted Binion murder trial and his live-in girlfriend Sandy Murphy and her secret lover Rick Tabish, Death in the Desert has all the framework and tracks laid for an engaging police procedural ala America's Most Wanted but instead opts for a half-hearted meandering through the fear and loathing of Las Vegas with Madsen's narration barely holding it together.  With the names changed to 'protect the innocent', Madsen's cocaine and pill-popping addict Ray Easler is about the only fully fledged character in the piece.  As for Kim Davis/Sandy Murphy (Shayla Beesley), her friend Margo (Paz De La Huerta with too much facial makeup) and her lover Matt Duvall (John Palladino), there's barely a reason given to invest in these characters at all.

Where Death in the Desert shines is putting Madsen's narration to a travelogue of the barren Nevada desert overlooking the Christmas Tree lights glittering throughout Las Vegas.  Darting in and out of casinos, strip clubs, bars and eventually mansions, it's a film eager to show off the location.  Visually it's very pretty and the soundtrack by Chris Goss is a cool mixture of synthesized melancholy and unfocused dread.  What it fails to do, however, is dive into what was later named Las Vegas' "trial of the century", opting instead for ruminating on vapid, self-serving characters eager to take advantage of Ray Easler's fortune and generosity.  There's a fascinating stranger-than-fiction love triangle of betrayal and greed going on here, but it never registers in the dramatized film.  Not unlike the Jim Sturgess crime drama Electric Slide, the pieces are all here but never seem to coalesce in a way that's interesting to the average filmgoer.  As an outsider unfamiliar with the story prior to seeing the film, what's here has all the high watermarks of film noir and my thoughts kept drifting back to Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum.  Throughout the film there's an underlying tension that the story is building towards an enormous and potentially shocking conclusion which, I'm sorry to say, never arrives.  When the end credits finally do roll, the abruptness of the ending will unquestionably make you exclaim aloud 'that's it?!'.  

"This is bat country!"
Michael Madsen will always be a charming character actor in league with Michael Parks, Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts and chances are even if the film he inhabits isn't worth it, his performance will be.  He fits naturally into the role of Ray Easler and his voiceover narration gives the material, however underwhelming it may be, just the right touch. 

Fans of Madsen will no doubt enjoy his character but Court TV buffs will come away disappointed that there wasn't more of the heated trial on display.  The film's biggest failing is that it simply spends too much time with Kim Davis who, outside of her rapid rise from alleyway prostitute to Easler's golden girl, isn't really that interesting of a character.  Even when her affair with Easler's right hand man Matt Duvall begins, I felt nothing.  No amount of scenery of the couple making out or going at it in the backseat of a car will make you invest in these characters at all.  While the real Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish may have had a lot of drama before and after the heated trial, Kim and Matt are dead to us and I kept wanting the film to return to Ray Easler, the only character who seemed to have blood pumping through his veins.  It's also far too leisurely paced with little dramatic tension and as a character study, well, it's really just Kill Bill's Budd and his s**tkicker hat all over again.


- Andrew Kotwicki