Death in the Desert

Sometimes my habit of trying not to know too much about a movie before watching it backfires, since in this case it might have been nice to know going in that Death in the Desert was based on a true story -- on the book of the same name, in fact. A casino mogul named Ted Binion died of a drug overdose back in 1998, and his girlfriend and an employee of his were tried for the murder -- twice, actually, since an appeals court reopened the case after they were both convicted. Sounds like a decent story to turn into a movie, right? Weirdly, though, this movie did the opposite of the usual and made everything less dramatic for the screen.

Ted here becomes Ray Easler (Michael Madsen, who I remember best as Bruce Willis' cop partner in the first Sin City), the black sheep of a Las Vegas casino family. That sounds a lot worse than being the black sheep of a family in middle-class suburbia, doesn't it? He lost his gaming license, which probably does make things pretty awkward when gaming is the family business. The girlfriend is Kim Davis (Shayla Beesley), who is an exotic dancer when Ray meets her and eventually turns her into his live-in mistress while he's busy divorcing his wife.

Kim isn't really sure she wants to be Ray's girlfriend, with roommate Margo (Paz de la Huerta) and coworker Cory (Roxy Saint, who was in a movie with the intriguing title of Zombie Strippers and sings a mean remake of "Only the Lonely") both trying to warn her away from the guy. And Ray does in fact do some shady dealing in drugs with Cicero (Stephen Manley), which is what lost him his gaming license. I wouldn't put up with Ray myself, but he does have a sort of 'poor little rich boy' vibe that seems to work pretty well on Kim. She only threatens to shoot him once. Madsen manages to make the character a lot more likable than he seems on paper, that's the point.

Anyway, then Matt Duvall (John Palladino) shows up. He's -- I don't know, he talks about needing to 'work the room', so apparently his job is schmoozing with people and trying to get them to give him money. When Ray offers him a job doing manual labor, though, he actually takes it, so maybe schmoozing is harder than I thought. Ray doesn't trust banks, you see, so he's decided to bury his huge collection of silver bars and coins in the desert. I guess casino owners are sort of modern-day pirates, aren't they?

Not too long after the digging is finished, though, the movie just sort of trails off and stops, apparently for added realism. Except that isn't how the real story happened at all, so I was left a bit confused. It wasn't a bad film by any means, I enjoyed watching it up until the last few minutes, which has been quite a trend lately.

Except for a couple of very small roles, the acting was all good, and the overall atmosphere was well-done also -- there was a excellent sense of the sort of tawdry glamour we all tend to associate with Vegas that pulls you into the story. And then it was over and I was left vaguely puzzled at the point of it all and with no idea of how to rate it. I guess I'll have to go with three and three-quarters out of five. I don't want to go any lower since I can sympathize with the writers. I know endings can be pretty hard. Just look at how I've ended some of these reviews.

Image: 
Ray and Kim out shooting, while Kim wonders why he's wearing that shirt.

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