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Thursday, 4 February 2016

Death in the Desert (2015)

Director: Josh Evans
Stars: Michael Madsen, Shayla Beesley, Paz de la Huerta, Jon Palladino and Roxy Saint
If this film’s story sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The screenplay was based on the non fiction book of the same name by Cathy Scott, which looks at the life and death of Las Vegas casino heir, Theodore ‘Ted’ Binion, the homicide investigation that followed his drug overdose and the trials (plural) of Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish, his live-in girlfriend and her lover. Binion died in 1998, so it’s not ancient history, and we have had plenty of opportunities to catch it in books like this one, coverage on TV shows like On the Case and American Justice and in at least one TV movie, 2008’s Sex and Lies in Sin City. It was fictionalised on CSI and even turned into a musical spoof. What’s more, the whole story feels like quintessential Vegas. If we’ve seen one movie about the underbelly of Las Vegas, we’ve seen ’em all, right? This time, the movie merely wasn’t directed by Martin Scorsese and Joe Pesci isn’t anywhere to be found. Well, not quite, as it turns out to be surely the most interesting take on this age old story that I’ve seen yet.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Michael Madsen plays the character we expect, merely renamed here from Ted Binion to Ray Easler, and what he goes through is the story we expect. The difference is that we don’t get to see much of it at all, because it tends to unfold offscreen, out of our sight and, more importantly, out of sight of Kim Davis, the Sandy Murphy equivalent, because, while this is Easler’s story, we’re watching it unfold from Davis’s perspective. Initially this feels a little off and it gets progressively more off until we twig to the approach that John Steppling (writing as John Melmoth) and director John Evans took. We don’t watch Easler grow, because we join his story when Kim does. We don’t meet his estranged wife, because he keeps her away from his girlfriend. We’re never a fly on the wall to his business meetings as she’s not there. We don’t find out just how much danger he’s in until bullets are fired through their house windows. We’re kept out of the loop because Kim is kept out of the loop. Only our experience fills in the gaps.
We’re here to watch Kim, played by Shayla Beesley. She’s a California girl who moves to Vegas and starts that familiar decline: she pawns the diamond that’s the only thing she has of worth and loses the money on the roulette table, she gets a job as a stripper and clearly sells her body on the side because that’s the way she meets Ray, the swaggering big shot in the cowboy outfit who takes a shine to her and waves his money around, starting with some for her services rendered. However, she’s not yet the broken soul that some of her companions are. She lives with Margo, who Paz de la Huerta plays like a woman who’s been chewed up by the lifestyle and spat back out again. Frankly, Margo is a scary lady, like Cory, Kim’s friend at work, who Roxy Saint endows with the impression that she’s only getting through her life with the help of illegal pharmaceuticals. She only comes to life when she sings at the Schizoid Pistol, because it’s what she wants to do and it’s the only time she feels herself.

By comparison to these two, Kim seems to be doing well. Sure, taking off her clothes in front of strangers and giving head to rich guys in broken down buildings is hardly a dream job, but she’s a pretty girl, she’s able to say no to free drugs and she knows not to admit who she is to a stranger who knocks on her door. Well, at least not until he explains that he’s Easler’s chauffeur with $2,500 to pick up Miss Davis for a lap dance. And so the relationship begins. She knows that he’s married. She knows that she’s just the young and pretty girl to hang on his arm in public and service him in private. She knows that it’s not going to be this way forever. But hey, he buys her a car and a horse and takes her to posh dinners. He owns the town. Beesley plays Kim like she’s a fish out of water who’s trying very hard to learn how to swim. She’s also not just Ray’s girl, she’s his mother and his nurse and his conscience, and when she occasionally recites, ‘Yeah, baby, whatever you want,’ sometimes she actually means it.
What I spent a long time trying to figure out is if Beesley was up to the task. Madsen struts his stuff as we might expect, swaggering and swaying through the film like a big shot who knows he can do pretty much anything he likes and often does so just because he can. He’s large and he’s loud and the screen belongs to him just like everything in Vegas. He also provides the narration, so he’s never far away. Kim is quieter, calmer and inherently subservient, so we watch her while we experience Ray. The question is whether the fish out of water is Kim Davis, Shayla Beesley or both. There are moments where Kim stumbles and we’re not sure if it’s really the actress stumbling, because she’s relatively new, only has a few credits so far and just impressed a casting agent enough to get a shot in an indie feature opposite a recognisable lead. Yet there are also points where she nails scenes so perfectly that we wonder why we ever doubted her talent. I found that I bounced back and forth between these two throughout. I need to see her in something else.

I ended up on the side of the actress, because everything we see is centred on her character and I didn’t think that the picture would have progressed without the filmmakers being in tune with her performance. Also, she’s depicted with more sympathy than what little I know of the real events might suggest. Within the film, she’s the most sympathetic of the few main characters, even though she starts out as a stripper, becomes a trophy girlfriend and ends up cheating on her meal ticket with one of his colleagues, publicly too. However, she’s also a voice of reason who constantly works on Ray to quit his burgeoning drug use, a calm presence in his life who only gets into one shouting match in the entire film (truly unprecedented) and someone who apparently comes to actually care for him, even if she never planned it. In real life, the equivalent character was arrested for his murder, along with a batch of other charges such as conspiracy, robbery, grand larceny and burglary, tried, found guilty and locked up, until a second trial freed her.
If Michael Madsen, a frequent recognisable name in indie features, is easily the most obvious thing about the film and Shayla Beesley’s much more subtle performance is its actual focus, the script is the third real thing of note. The film’s plot synopsis might suggest that it’s really a love triangle, but that’s buried deep in the mix and John Palladino isn’t given any real opportunity to steal much attention. He’s decent as Matt Duvall, but the character has no real depth and he can’t compete with Madsen, who effortlessly steals his share of scenes, and Beesley, who looks halfway between Mariah Carey and Debbie Harry with perhaps a little Elisha Cuthbert in there for good measure. The script is what emerges to make itself known and I’m fascinated as to why Steppling and Evans chose to tell their story from such an unusual perspective. It’s an utterly original dynamic, alternately frustrating and invigorating, as we’re left out of the big picture to catch only its periphery when events or conversation bring Kim into those smaller pictures.

Visually it’s capable, with the production given access to a variety of locations and props that help to sell the affluence of Ray Easler without having to resort to cheap tricks. Regular viewers of indie features will see where money isn’t spent where Hollywood would have spent it, but it spends enough to work. Only in the supporting roles does its indie nature really show up, because some of the actors who get a line here and there clearly aren’t up to the standards of the rest of the production. A few are capable, like Charidy Wronski as a policewoman and some polite but knowing ranchhands, whose names I failed to catch, but most are not. Other weaker aspects include some slower scenes in the middle portion of the film and the way that the ending is left open wider that it should have been, given just how much has been published on this case and is readily available for anyone to explore by simply searching in Wikipedia, especially in regards to Easler’s fortune in silver and the favourable treatment given to Kim Davis.
Then again, this is fiction, even if it’s based on a non fiction book. The wise choice to change the names of the lead characters speaks to that. Kim Davis may be a sympathetic character, clearly innocent of any of the charges that were brought against Sandy Murphy in real life, beause they’re not the same; one was merely based on the other. It feels like they didn’t take that decision just to avoid being sued by someone who might get upset with any of the changes, but because they knew they’d changed things just enough to want to ensure that their creation is received as fiction. Braveheart this isn’t, thank goodness, and the film doesn’t begin with a banner that proudly proclaims, ‘Based on a true story!’ It’s a work of fiction and on that front it entertains, led by one strong lead and one subtle one and an odd experiment of a script. I wonder how many viewers will thrill to the different approach and how many will feel cheated because of what they don’t get to see. Maybe it’s down to the budget, maybe imagination, but it’s certainly original.

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