February 25, 2016 Death in the Desert (Movie Review)
In 1998, tabloids were abuzz with details about the life, death, and homicide trial of Ted Binion, heir to Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Although he died from a drug overdose, his girlfriend, Sandy Murphy, and her lover, Rick Tabish, were accused of Binion’s murder. As sensational as the events that took place after Binion’s death were, his eccentric lifestyle was just as interesting. Based on Cathy Scott’s true crime novel of the same name, Director Josh Evans delves into Binion’s life and the months leading up to his death in Death in the Desert. The film was released for VOD on February 16, 2016 via Osiris Entertainment, and the names of those involved were changed for the film.
Actor Michael Madsen (The Hateful Eight 2015, Reservoir Dogs 1992) portrays Ray Easler (Binion), as well as narrates throughout the film. When the wealthy casino owner meets a much younger topless dancer named Kim Davis (Shayla Beesley: Reaper 2014, InAPPropriate Comedy 2013), she is immediately taken by his charm and generosity. The couple moves in together, but Easler’s drug addiction and abusive behavior pushes Davis away. He also becomes paranoid, believing that someone will steal his wealth. Easler hires a friend, Matt Duvall (John Palladino: Lady Lily: Adventures in God’s Country 2010, The Good Wife 2015), and a crew of men to bury his fortune in an underground safe in the desert. Desperate for attention, Davis begins having a secret affair with Duvall, which leads to the couple falling in love. As Easler’s drug habit gets worse, it eventually ends in tragedy. Considering the possible motives, including wealth and an affair, people soon grow suspicious of the lovers.
Although Easler lost his life, everyone involved in the story hit rock bottom and were victims to their own vices. An underlying theme throughout the film is how a city filled with gambling, addiction, and lust can build someone up, only to send them crashing down. Actress and singer Roxy Saint (Zombie Strippers 2008, Caller ID: Entity 2016) has a haunting performance singing “Only the Lonely,” which describes this quite well. The scene is one of the most memorable throughout the film and is beautifully shot.
The cinematography was well-done, ranging from the calm desert, to the flashy lights of casinos, to Vegas’ seedy underbelly. Michael Madsen’s portrayal of Ray Easler felt authentic and, as usual, his presence captivated the screen. Shayla Beesley’s lack of experience could be seen at times, especially next to such a dynamic and seasoned actor such as Madsen. The same can be said for John Palladino, however, when Beesley and Palladino have screen time together, it works quite well. The love triangle is a major element of the film and Shayla Beesley does have nice chemistry with both actors. Paz de la Huerta (Nurse 3D 2013, Boardwalk Empire 2010-2011) is another supporting actor featured in the film who can easily steal the show. Her confidence on screen is undeniable and she has no problem adding spice to all of her scenes. Even with a few hiccups along the way, there is so much right with Death in the Desert that they can be easily overlooked.
The story itself is shown in a more simplistic way, relying on good, old fashioned filmmaking that one would have seen decades ago. In a recent interview, Director Josh Evans told CrypticRock, “Death in the Desert is a throwback to those older movies. It also isn’t smooth, but it isn’t meant to be smooth.” That perspective is definitely evident throughout the film. For viewers interested in films based on real life events and old-school storytelling, Death in the Desert will be a treat. CrypticRock gives Death in the Desert 3.5 out of 5 stars.