And they named the movie this…why?
Banks is a hired assassin working for some members of a Mexican drug cartel. His standard operating procedure is to pick up lost and lonely women from the desert highways of the southwest. He then asks them to pretend to be his wife. Once arrangements are in place, they check into a south of the border hacienda. Banks then goes about his murderous assignment. Once they've helped him dispose of the evidence, Banks takes the women out into the desert and disposes of them. The FBI has tracked him for over 15 years, and yet the illusive, Ivy League educated killer has never been close to capture. That is, until Bennie comes along. Banks picks her up at a usual roadside rest stop, and after several false starts, she agrees to help Banks with his next assignment. But people and events are not always what they seem to be. As the new job looms ever closer, it appears that the Feds are finally closing in on Banks. He and Bennie have also grown unexpectedly closer. Or maybe, this all was part of someone's underhanded plan?
Desert Saints is not a bad film. It offers a terrific performance by Kiefer Sutherland as Banks, and a small amount of "how's this all going to wrap up" suspense. But that's about all. The film wants to aim higher and strike harder. It strives to coattail Quentin and his gang of basin bow-wows into a jolting jab at some pulse pounding pulp fiction. However, there are a few conceits the writers should have left in Tarantino's journal when they finished skimming it for inspiration. One is the flash forward, flashback alternative timeline reality nonsense. Do we really need to see snippets of scenes 30 minutes before they play out, or the second to final endgame shot before our characters even meet? They don't offer any interesting thematic undercurrents or alternative characterization insights. They're just editing games. Also ineffective is the attempt at formula fudging. Anyone with even the merest scintilla of stem cells will know that Melora Walters' Bennie is a cop, or some manner of undercover entity. Since we don't really care who she is, we are left to wonder whom she is working for, will Banks find out, and what happens when he does. But all of those angles are left unexplored as a plot twist is pulled out of the alternative lifestyles GLAAD handbook and used to cap off the caper. Melora Walters is indeed one of the weakest elements in the film. One can't help but think of the classic exchange in Reservoir Dogs between Tim Roth and his fellow police officer about how to act undercover. She violates every concept they discuss. She whines. She yells. She concocts outlandish lies and can't keep her stories straight. While it is clear she is doing a little emotional fishing, hoping to hook this hit guy any way she can, her performance doesn't prepare us for the supposed moral complexity of the character. In the last few minutes, it's like someone from a different film has arrived to take over the role while Walters has emergency surgery.
And this is supposed to be a CRIME thriller. For a movie that's about a professional, meticulous hired gun and the FBI dragnet to track him down, we see very little killing or police work. There are only two, standard shootings, and the Feds apparently solve the majority of their high profile, long-term cases by spending inordinately large quantities of time in coffee shops and diners. Too much of the film seems to take place off screen. Since the film wants to flip the conventions of its formulaic trappings, perhaps this needs to happen. You can't surprise people who know EVERYTHING. But eventually, about 50 minutes in, the out of audience view variations begin to undermine the narrative (not that the temporal trampoline act helps matters) and the storyline is shortchanged. Especially in the finale. The film has promised us a shocking twist since we learned there is double-dealing and backstabbing aplenty (potentially) going on. So when the final moments do indeed begin to play out, events are rushed, the editing turns frenetic, the screen goes black, a sound effect is heard, and we are left to wonder: Wha'ppen? Again, important information is left off screen. In a better-plotted and detailed film, this would be acceptable. Motivations would be clear and assignations easy to decipher. But since Desert Saints has not been playing fair with the narrative to begin with, the ambiguity feels like a cheat, and the point of watching for the last 88 minutes seems pointless.
Artisan does a poor job with this disc, starting with the full screen transfer. The film is shot in the desert southwest, well known for its vistas and haunting lost highways. But cropped onto a television screen, the camera could be filming a local Taco Bell for the all the border flavor and scope offered. The soundtrack is presented in a standard Dolby Digital Stereo that is nothing special, and a non-theatrical, pick-it-up-on-DVD style trailer is the only extra offered. While it seems unfair to berate this film simply because it cribs a great many of its ideas and style from better filmmakers and films (strike that…ONE filmmaker—Quentin Tarantino), it's warranted since there is some good work going to waste here. When Bennie asks Banks what it's like to kill a person, Sutherland's performance and line reading—"it's the worst thing imaginable"—gives a real sense of gravity and pathos and hints that there was a real (and eventually lost) chance at making something special here. But like the arid wind that blows tumbleweeds down the long hot landscapes of the west, Desert Saints the film, and the DVD presentation is neither cool nor comforting. All it does it stir up a lot of unpleasant, irritating feelings.
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