Death in the Desert has been described as a “true-crime thriller” and “action/adventure”, but aside from the fact that it is based on a true story, I got none of that while watching this film. It was slow and dull (especially considering it is set in and around the fast-paced city of Las Vegas), with very little action or thrills. There is a death, but the possibility that it was a murder (and thereby a “true-crime account) is barely touched upon in an almost laughable manner. Even fans of star Michael Madsen (who provides quote-worthy voiceover narratives throughout the whole picture) may want to pass.
Michael Madsen (Kill Bill, Hateful Eight, many more) stars as Ray Easler, a lonely former casino owner suffering from numerous ailments that has him hooked on drugs. Ray falls for a dancer, Kim Davis (Shayla Beesley), and invites her to move in with him; which she agrees to primarily because he is rich and gives her extravagant gifts. Soon after, Ray hires Matt Duvall (John Palladino; Grand Theft Auto V) to bury $20 million worth of silver in the Nevada desert. As Ray’s voiceover kind of expects, Matt and Kim begin having an affair.
On the love triangle angle, this film fell far short. There is zero chemistry between Ray and Kim, which is to be expected since he is basically buying companionship with which Kim is going along. But, similarly, there is very little chemistry between Kim and Matt. I also watched a movie this weekend involving incest and I could feel their love for each other 100 times more than any two characters in this movie. I do not know if it was the acting or a script that is trying too hard to toe the line between fantasy and reality, but I felt nothing for these characters.
The movie, Death in the Desert (and novel of the same name), is based on the life of casino owner Ted Binion and the subsequent trials of his live-in girlfriend Sandra Murphy and her lover Rick Tabish, which apparently gained national attention at the time (goes to show how fleeting notoriety can be since I had never heard of these people before this movie). The movie does not get anywhere near the trials, but includes little details that were revealed during the trials. Instead of a potentially dramatic and exciting trial that would please true-crime fans, we get scenes with Kim’s best friend Margo (Paz de la Huerta; Boardwalk Empire), whose character really adds nothing to the film beyond obnoxious yelling, and plotting between characters that seemingly goes nowhere.
If you want to check out this film because it has Michael Madsen, you probably will not be too disappointed. Madsen does have the most developed character and his voiceover work is largely enjoyable. True crime fans should steer clear.