Artisan // 2002 // 93 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // September 26th, 2003
Money. Murder. Betrayal. It's all in the bag.
People will do anything to change their lot in life, and in the town of Twentynine Palms, this is no exception. When a bag of money shows up, people walk over each other trying to get their hands on it, which is more than you can say about people trying to get their hands on a copy of 29 Palms on DVD. The movie borrows from its contemporaries and offers too few interesting elements to provide a satisfying cinematic experience.
Straight-to-video, you say? Indeed.
This is the story about a bag, and the people who want it.
The Drifter (Jeremy Davies, CQ) works as a legal clerk for The Judge, who is receiving payoffs from The Chief, owner of a local Indian casino. When The Drifter finds out that The Judge is flip-flopping on a decision to allow the expansion of Indian casinos, he stalwartly objects. Fearing repercussions from double-crossing The Chief, he does what any self-respecting judge would do -- rats out The Drifter as an FBI undercover agent.
The Hitman (Chris O'Donnell, Batman + Robin) is called in to deal with this "mutual" problem. The Chief hires him to kill The Drifter, and pays him with a bag full of money -- the bag full of money -- which becomes the central focus for the entire movie.
As he counts the money in the bag, he is observed over a closed-circuit television...and suddenly, The Hitman gets robbed by The Security Guard (Jon Polito, The Hudsucker Proxy). Now, the bag is traveling, passing from one person to the next, until ironically, it ends up in the hands of The Drifter, now on the run.
There is nobody who he can trust, not even The Waitress (Rachael Leigh Cook, Josie and the Pussycats), despite taking a strong liking to her -- because everybody who sees the bag wants the bag, and everybody who wants the bag has a lot of guns, and a strong desire to get the bag back from the person who took it.
One of the cleverer points to the film is that nobody has a name; in 29 Palms, individuals don't matter -- everybody wants the bag, and everybody acts like a lunatic when faced with the prospect of getting the bag, to the point that they will steal, cheat, lie, run each other over with cars, and generally exercise their Second Amendment right to the fullest extent of the law.
This is a critique of human nature, of course, just not a very good one. The film, despite being fairly clever, fairly well written, and fairly well acted, falls apart like a house of cards in a hurricane. Ultimately, the story becomes convoluted and the plot devices make no sense. How everybody can show up in the middle of the desert at exactly the right time to take the bag from one another, shoot a lot of bullets, then conveniently end up in exactly the place where the next person lays in wait, well -- it just screams stupidity.
Chris O'Donnell, in a bewildering piece of creative casting, plays a well-dressed, rockabilly gangster with aviator glasses who absolutely, positively, without a second-guess, looks like a hitman. Now, this cannot be a wise look for a hitman -- walking around looking like a guy who kills people and all. How a person can meander around in a post-Tarantino world, and not get arrested constantly is a puzzle that I will never be able to answer -- unless there is a dress code in the hitman union. He plays the character exactly like he plays Buddy Threadgoode in Fried Green Tomatoes -- a genial, nice fellow, polite and soft-spoken, who just happens to have a job where he shoots people in the face. Wait; scratch that last one. He also is a manic hypochondriac, which adds an amusing twist to an already amusing twist of casting.
Jeremy Davies does an excellent Drifter, managing to look consistently bewildered and dazed the entire movie, exactly the same as every other role he takes. Still, it works well here; he creates a unique anti-hero, a very stoic, nervous, sedate hero who holds a gun gingerly by the fingertips as if it was a rotten fish.
Jon Polito and Michael Rapaport (The Security Guard and The Cop, respectively) play extremely over-the-top roles that should be a lot funnier than they are, and probably were meant to be. Their excitement and enthusiasm is misplaced, and would be better spent elsewhere; say, better movies.
The narrative is told with a stylized, fragmented method, with numerous audio bridges and edits from scenes that overlap onto the visuals, and flashes of previous scenes into the movie in an elliptic, non-linear fashion -- like a music video, but not as annoyingly flashy. The characters are positions only, with no time reference from one scene to the next.
At times, the film is reminiscent of a Jim Jarmusch film, Dead Man. The incessant shots of vacant space, and long walks to nowhere, the languid style of characters interacting with one another, the reserved, perplexed anti-hero stumbling around, bewildered, and of course, the nonsensical plot.
At other times, it comes across like the Tarantino-scribed first half of From Dusk Till Dawn; the desert locale, the well-dressed, gun-toting thugs in strange, exotic locations in the absolute middle of the American southwest, in small towns full of strange and bizarre folk.
At least, until the vampires show up. Then, then the similarities sort of shrink away.
In fact, 29 Palms is reminiscent of a lot of other films, a lot of other movies and images and performances and screenplays, assembled here into a mash of interesting ideas, but ideas that all have been done exceptionally well in other places. Were the film stronger, it could easily stand alongside such films -- however, as a weaker, inferior film, the comparison becomes very critical -- and plagiaristic.
Visually, the film is interesting to look at, with numerous interesting and artistic shots, clever edits, random cuts, and shows the directorial skill and cinematic prowess of the filmmakers. The scenery, filmed on location in Twentynine Palms, California, is stark, bleak, and very, very below sea level. The occasional Joshua tree dots the desert landscape, which makes for a very stylized location and for beautiful visuals.
The 16:9 widescreen transfer, however, is fairly pedantic. Noticeable scratches and dust mar the image, and while the colors are acceptable (blues being especially stark and cool) overall, the presentation is passable, and nothing to write home about. The detail is soft overall and the graininess during night shots is very apparent.
The sound is pretty good -- a very nice Dolby 5.1 mix fills the room with modest bass and atmospheric music and detailed sounds. The wind, in particular, sounds excellent across the channels, and the mix is well balanced throughout. The Dolby 2.0 mix as well sounds very good, with dialogue sharp, music well balanced and no noticeable abnormalities.
Extras include a producer's commentary by the creators of the film, which is a very detailed and comprehensive look into the film itself -- not the most interesting commentary recorded on DVD, but certainly not bad at all. The trailer is also included, as well as two on-screen text features: editing notes and a story bible.
When combined with the commentary, these help dissect the story and give assistance in understanding the goals and aims of the filmmakers. Listening to the audio commentary and reading these notes, you really get a feel for how much thought, creativity, and effort went into this film.
Where they ended up putting it, though, I have no idea.
Oh boy. Where to start?
The plot gets astonishingly ludicrous at times. In the middle of Twentynine Palms, which for all intents and purposes is exactly in the middle of absolute desert nowhere, boy howdy; no matter where you are, other people sure manage to all be in exactly the same spot to run each other over with cars and shoot at them.
Secondly, the level of sheer craziness that these people are willing to go through in order to get this bag (which at the most could only contain $50,000) seems at complete odds with any semblance of common sense, clear thinking, or logical thought -- even when you accept the film's social commentary that greed will overtake common sense and so on.
I insist that getting run over, shot in the foot, punched in the face, shot in the groin (rendering you medically impotent), and beaten, bruised and humiliated in dozens of other ways would make even the most single-minded fellow take a deep breath, count to ten, get one of those stress balls, and call it a day.
The racial stereotypes are downright bewildering, for another. Most Indian casino workers (and I am out of my element here and going out on a limb, so if I offend anyone, I apologize) do not dance around people going "Whoop Whoop Whoop!" before killing them.
Despite its visual coolness and interesting non-linear and cyclical narrative style, as an enjoyable movie, 29 Palms fails, mostly due to its overall lousiness. The casting is an eclectic mix that works in some instances, but is overshadowed by over-the-top performances that corn up the film.
Not a total disaster, at all -- but most jokes fall flat, the plot is languid and ludicrous far too often, and the style and plot borrow from numerous other genre-films much better than 29 Palms and re-arrange them in a way that seems vaguely familiar, like a cardboard outline of a good movie.
Welcome to the wonderful world of straight-to-video (pardon, DVD) rentals.
Money, murder, and betrayal are all in the bag. Too bad there wasn't a better movie in there too.
This court is in recess to get drunk, and hope that Rachael Leigh Cook will show up at the Judge's house tonight.
Review content copyright © 2003 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Producer's Commentary
* Story Bible
* Production Notes
* Cast and Crew Biographies
* Editing Notes
* The City of Twentynine Palms