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A Desert Film Review: Stylish But Hollow

A man sits at a deserted cinema without a shirt and with hands on the seats in the film A Desert

Memorable visuals and slick editing can’t mask the deeper issues with A Desert — namely, the flimsy narrative and glacial pacing.

Director: Joshua Erkman
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Run Time: 100′
Tribeca Premiere: June 7, 2024
Release Date: TBA

Joshua Erkman’s feature film debut, A Desert, is set in the modern day, but it could just as well take place in a futuristic dystopia. The buildings and landscapes of the American Southwest are generally deserted and derelict, giving the film an arid, apocalyptic feeling; day and night come and go with the same menace and dread.

It’s a striking tone, and strong imagery enforces this sun-drenched horror nightmare, but the great atmosphere is eventually deadened by some stunted pacing and, most damningly, a nonsensical and careless plot.

In the hopes of reviving his career, photographer Alex (Kai Lennox, Green Room) sets off on a solo road trip across the Southwest; he takes no phone or GPS, instead preferring to, as he puts it to his wife, become “purposefully lost”. The commentaries here on how technology affects our ability to truly experience and enjoy true freedom are obvious but welcome, and hint at something interesting and thought-provoking to come in A Desert. At this point, deliberate pacing combines with stylish editing and neon-soaked visuals to create something enticing. Unfortunately, the vagueness of both the plot and themes starts to deaden these strengths, and in time the pacing becomes less alluring and more mundane.

Not having a phone might be all well and good in theory, but when things inevitably go wrong for Alex, such technology would have come in handy. The young couple, Renny (Zachary Ray Sherman, Lost in Tomorrow) and Susie Q (Ashley B. Smith, Off Ramp), in the same motel as Alex spend the night with the photographer and, whilst at first he enjoys their company, he discovers something much more sinister lurking beneath. Sherman is the highlight of A Desert, bringing a spectacularly unhinged and evil tone that shares more than a few similarities to Dennis Hopper performances of the past.

The issue is there doesn’t seem to be much direction for Sherman to do anything other than look deranged—an issue indicative of the whole film. A Desert is severely lacking in any context or thought; seedy scenarios come and go with shock value but little imagination. The result is baffling, and it eventually becomes clear that there is very little—thematically, narratively, or otherwise—beneath the admittedly alluring surface to latch onto. What at first is an intriguing mystery melts into a repetitive slog.

A man sits at a deserted cinema without a shirt and with hands on the seats in the film A Desert
A Desert (Yellow Veil Pictures / 2024 Tribeca Film Festival)

It is a shame, because there is a lot to like about A Desert, and it can be admired as a stylish, odd, trippy desert road trip film. DOP Jay Keitel (She Dies Tomorrow) captures the Southwest in vivid detail, whether via neon signs against the dark night sky or the area’s burning, inescapable sunlight. When someone dies, red tinges the edges of the screen, the shock of violence standing in stark contrast to A Desert’s measured tone. Star Rosencrans’ (No More Time) smooth editing and Ty Segall’s droning, creeping original score enhances these visuals further.

Clearly, there is so much style here, but nothing really to any of it. For all this style and the shock value in A Desert, the result is a little bland and unformed. Thematic commentaries are promising at first, but descend into ambiguity, whilst A Desert’s free-wheeling nature lacks any sort of clarity. Eventually, things become elusive in a frustrating way; when the screen cuts to black, you’ll likely be left scratching your head and feeling empty.

A Desert premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 7, 2024. Read our list of 15 films to watch at the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival!

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