‘A Desert’: The Wild Horror Film That’s Shocking the Tribeca Film Festival

‘A Desert’: The Wild Horror Film That’s Shocking the Tribeca Film Festival

Horror movies are often dire warnings about the world and its volatile, unholy chaos, and A Desert is a terrifying cautionary tale about the dangers lurking in the vast wastelands—and beneath the placid surfaces and around the tattered edges—of modern America. Premiering this weekend in the Midnight section of the Tribeca Film Festival, the film is a clash of the civilized and the primal that’s additionally laced with a sly meta undercurrent about cinema’s relationship to the deviance it depicts, Joshua Erkman’s directorial debut trawls a landscape of the abandoned, the forgotten, and the malevolent things which grow in the dark and the wild. It’s a nightmare that burrows under one’s skin like a virus (or a curse), and it heralds its creator as a bracing new genre-filmmaking voice.

Teasing its basic narrative particulars with the same patience that it bestows upon its monstrousness, A Desert focuses on Alex (Kai Lennox), who’s traveling alone through the empty desert, forsaken ghost towns, and empty abodes of Yucca, Arizona. With an old 8×10 large-format film camera, Alex is striving to revitalize his photography career by snapping pictures of derelict places that, as he eventually articulates, represent “a moment where the unforgiving power of nature is gradually reclaiming its topography from what man has built on it.” To do this, Alex is looking to “purposely get lost,” and much of the film’s early going involves the professional shutterbug driving aimlessly from one gone-to-seed locale after another, beginning with a closed movie theater where his camera stares silently at a giant blank screen—an image that will be duplicated, warped, and reconfigured throughout the course of the ensuing story.

Phone calls to his wife Sam (A Wounded Fawn’s Sarah Lind) indicate that Alex’s marriage is under some financial strain that’s been exacerbated by his decision to take off on his own into the great dusty unknown. Alex’s goal is to recapture the magic of his own past, which had to do with photographs about the toll time takes on everything and everyone, and A Desert suggests these connections with a dreaminess—courtesy of transitional fades and zooms into and out of close-up—that extends to the rest of the material’s subtle parallels. Alex feels at home in barren places, where he believes he’s attained the “freedom” he seeks, but such autonomy isn’t without its hazards, as he learns when, while staying at a rundown motel, he hears violent noises and yelling from the room next door. When that commotion doesn’t subside, he reluctantly opts to call the front desk. What this earns him is a visit from his neighbors that forever changes his life.

Courtesy of an unwanted knock at the door, Alex is greeted by Renny (Zachary Ray Sherman), a disheveled stranger in a tank top whose hair and goatee are almost as wild as his eyes. Sherman is unnerving from the moment go, and that’s without even taking into account that A Desert previously caught him watching Alex earlier that day at a neglected military base. Renny apologizes for the hubbub and, upon seeing Alex’s camera, asks him if he’ll photograph him and his sister Susie Q (Ashley B. Smith). Naturally, Alex wants nothing to do with any of this and recognizes that the duo resembles a pimp and prostitute more than siblings. Yet out of fear of offending Renny and instigating further trouble, he grudgingly agrees. Once they’re inside his room, Alex is again pressured into avoiding conflict by agreeing to imbibe their turpentine-esque booze, and before long, he’s subsumed in a bacchanalian haze.

The following morning, Alex wakes with a massive hangover, little memory of the prior evening, and a yearning to get back on the road in search of new deserted homes and streets—even if, as he tells his wife in a voicemail, an encounter with a junkyard owner has stirred in him a desire to photograph people. Unfortunately, he winds up once again running into Renny, who convinces him to see a fantastic site about which no one else knows. It turns out that it’s a big pile of stones, which Renny says his grandfather used to live below until the nearby army shot him dead. Just as this fantastical tale of hermits residing underground sounds borderline mythical, Renny also talks about the UFOs (which he pronounces “Yoofos”) that he frequently sees flying through the night sky.

A subsequent trip to Renny’s birthplace marks the end of the initial chapter of A Desert, as well as highlights the risk of behaving like a “tourist” who thinks that the world is a playground rather than a battlefield. At that point, Erkman and co-writer Bossi Baker’s script segues into a second phase, focusing on both Sam and the private investigator, disgraced ex-cop Harold Paladino (David Yow), whom she hires to get to the bottom of a pressing mystery. Even during this back half, A Desert tunes into an ugly, ancient wavelength, all while repeatedly emphasizing how the camera—be it those owned by its characters, or the one used to create this feature—seeks to comprehend our mad, ephemeral reality by immortalizing it via still and motion pictures. Erkman never italicizes such concerns, but a finale involving an enigmatic degenerate known as “the director” stresses the film’s self-reflexive interest in issues of preservation, impermanence, order, and anarchy.

Regardless of whether Renny’s name is a shout-out to Count Dracula’s minion (a notion hinted at by the early sounds of scurrying rats), a strain of primordial evil courses through A Desert all the way to a finale whose violence is witnessed on static-y, blood-splattered video monitors. From the contrast between the light of the desert day and the darkness of the subterranean lairs which Alex and company ultimately traverse, to the sinister duality of Renny—brought to chilling life by Sherman, who seems destined for a long career in genre fare—the film walks along the precipice of an abyss before ultimately diving in headfirst to see what dwells within. What it discovers, with impressive 2001: A Space Odyssey­-inspired flair, is both incomprehensible ghastliness and banal malice—both of which, it understands, are inextricable bedfellows.


The Daily Beast

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