“Death in the Desert is good, but it could’ve been great”
Based on the last days in the life of casino heir, Ted Binion, this film by Josh Evans revolves around self-destructive casino owner, Ray Easler (Michael Madsen), and his whirlwind love affair with Kim Davis (Shayla Beesley). Kim is an exotic dancer when she meets Ray, who immediately falls for her. She can hardly refuse his offer to move in with him as he throws lavish gifts at her (give me a car and a horse and I’ll move in with you too!). Ray is a drug addict who used a multitude of narcotics to combat his depression over being forced out of his casino, not to mention his nasty divorce and an untrusting family. Might Kim be the answer to all his problems? He hopes so as he shares his home, his ranch, his secrets and his demons with her.
The spoiler-free version is that Ray sees enemies all around him. He hashes a plan to relocate millions of dollars in silver bullion and rare coins to a dirt pit in the desert. Only a handful of people know about it, Ray, Kim, and the handsome young Matt Duvall (John Palladino), who is hired by Ray to handle the relocation. As Ray’s drug use increases and his behavior more erratic, Kim’s patience grows thin as she’s drawn into an affair with Matt. When Ray is found dead, Kim’s world is turned upside down.
The film ends without really broaching the question of Kim and Matt’s involvement in Ray’s death, which might be for the better. In the case of Ted Binion, his live-in girlfriend, Sandy Murphy, and her lover, Rick Tabish, are convicted of orchestrating Binion’s murder, then stealing all the cash, coins, and bullion buried out in the desert, only to have their conviction overturned in a new trial. Did they conspire to kill Binion? Only they know and, in this film, Josh Evans leaves that question up to the viewers as well.
This story premise had promise and I liked how the film painted Kim and Matt as two people falling in love just trying to escape the domineering personality that is Ray Easler. The film doesn’t portray them as conspiring lovers out to kill him and steal his bullion stash. However I just don’t feel the film lived up to its potential.
As the heir to Hollywood legends, Josh Evans (son of über-producer Robert Evans and actress Ali McGraw), is no stranger to film production and has racked up some credits as an actor and independent film director, however, I feel his latest project failed to deliver something; it was just lacking. Maybe the pacing didn’t mesh with the fast life Vegas represents (hard not to do with the amount of drugs Ray consumes). I can only think that Evans deliberately wanted to story to revolve around Ray’s home life with his live-in girlfriend, Kim, and not so much how hard Las Vegas living shaped and ruined his life.
The Cinematography and lighting are top notch and the film is visually appealing with some nice Vegas scenery. Production values are aces all around! The film is told through voice-overs by Madsen, even after his character’s death. Madsen delivers a good performance, displaying character emotions that are at times sweet and loving while at others, cruel and violent. Shayla Beesley portrayal of Kim is not as consistent. Her character appears one dimensional for most of the film, yet she was able to deliver brief moments of convincing emotion. Is this on purpose? Is this to leave the audience wondering what Kim’s motivation was for being with Ray? Money or love? I’m just not sure.
The score was pretty good and Evans cast his wife, Roxy Saint, as a friend of Kim’s who also delivers a pretty good version of The Motels’ “Only the Lonely.” This is a perfect song for Ray Easler and props to Evans for including it as it sums up Easler’s life. The money, the women, the casinos, not even trying to settle down with Kim, can fill the void in his life. This film depicts the final days of Ray Easler falling prey to the city of sin, Las Vegas. The mystery of how he died becomes unimportant the more you realize how he lived.
Much like the character Ray Easler, Death in the Desert is good, but it could’ve been great had it lived up to its potential.
Screenplay by John Steppling (based on the book , Death in the Desert: The Ted Binion Homicide Case, by Cathy Scott)