The Movie Waffler New Release Review (VOD) - DESERTED | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review (VOD) - DESERTED

A group of youths run into trouble on their way to a music festival in the desert.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Ashley Avis

Starring: Mischa Barton, Jackson Davis, Winter Ave Zoli, Lance Henriksen, Jake Busey

Deserted, a debut feature from writer/director/producer Ashley Avis, opens with wide angles of Eastern California’s hauntingly spacious deserts, bleak panoramas soundtracked by a bluesy dirge of gravelly voiced regret and sparsely populated by beauteous young people in denim and battered Chevrolet trucks. The specific type of Americana depicted - an America of dust and duty, of spat tobacco and violence- is consolidated when lead character Jae (Mischa Barton - really good to see this wonderful and underrated actress on screen again, and, also, get well soon Mischa!) is discharged from the sort of prison Johnny Cash might have used as a touring venue, and picked up by her loving brother Robin (Jackson Davies) following her stretch for an as yet unknown crime. Back in their home town - where their parents are ‘mysteriously’ absent - Jae resolves to accompany Robin and his bunch of mates to the ‘Burn the’ (Burning) ‘Moon’ (Man) festival somewhere in the forbidding expanse of Death Valley. Wikipedia informs me that Death Valley is ‘is one of the hottest places in the world at the height of summertime’… "Sounds pretty cool," Jae says.

But of course, it isn’t cool. Like every group of teens/twentysomethings in the history of cinema who barrel up in an RV and make their way into the American wilderness, it all goes to shit. Burst tires, steam from the bonnet, disagreements within camp; the checklist of horror foreshadowing is complete when a gracious hillbilly helps out our hapless but handsome gang. "He looks like something out of Deliverance" one of the bitchy girls in the back seat snarks, expect he doesn’t at all (in fact, he looks UNCANNILY like the young Gary Busey - probably because he’s the great loon’s son, Jake Busey), she’s just saying it to invoke the classic template of sophisticates lost in the backwoods. By the time they hit the peyote, you’re considering two things; why, if it has been billed as a thriller, with narrative enigmas built around Jae and Robin’s past, does the film look and feel like horror-lite?; and, two, if this isn’t a horror, then am I going to be stuck watching all of these boring YAs for the remainder of the running time? Can’t Busey Jr., with his maniacal grin, pop back with a heavy wrench or something and knock a couple off?

Thankfully, about a third in, the kids do start dying. Nothing to do with Busey (who never shows up again-?), but instead the fault of whatever toxins the peyote was ‘laced with’, the gang half-heartedly decide (again- ?). Could it be that Jae, sent to prison for killing her own mum, murdered the girl in her sleep; that Jae’s a wolf in the fold? No, nothing as interesting. These kids are just extremely clumsy; one gets bit by a snake, another gets caught in a dust storm when she goes for a waz. There’s no coherent or specific threat, just the endless and treacherous space of Death Valley.

About that space… When I’m watching screeners like Deserted, I cast them from my mobile device to a chrome server, which is plugged into the back of my massive TV. When it isn’t in use, the chrome ‘screensaver’ is an infinite slideshow of photographs sent in by users, images chosen for their depth of field and colour, selected for their capacity to allure and pop on 1080p plasma. Several times watching Deserted I wondered if the cast connection had cut out, with the device duly reverting to a montage of tasteful landscapes and intense panoramas. But, no, that’s the film, which often over-indulges the admittedly striking locations of the action. The photography is, nonetheless, beautiful, and I swoon to imagine what Deserted would have looked like on the cinema screen. In fact, Garrett O'Brien’s cinematography is so forbiddingly gorgeous that I was half way to planning my own trip to this deathly wonderland of purple skies and dramatic outcrops of rock, surely contradicting the narrative purpose of the film…

This sort of disorientation characterises Deserted, where the lack of narrative cohesion ill-advisedly mirrors the off-track situation of the characters. There’s no real resolution to the matricide subplot (which has no discernible bearing on the plot), and, even though the depiction of one particular death is affectingly lonely and sad, no cause to care about other characters, one of whom spits at a female camper to go and get ‘a box of tampons for a fucking pity party’ (line of the year?). Fully enveloped by the full screen landscape, the evocative setting overwhelms these small characters and their little world, and, aimless and set adrift, Deserted loses its way.

Deserted is on VOD February 28th.