Four people are cruising a lonesome stretch of desert highway. The driver, Billy (Lochlyn Munro, who’s been in many things, yet Dead Man on Campus is what I will always associate him with), is a drunken loudmouth, not even ceasing his drinking when behind the wheel. He is engaged to a hot little number named Annie (Katrina Law), whom he only just met the night before at an L.A. charity event. Also in the car is a married couple, Roy and Jamie (Nick E. Tarabay and Victoria Pratt), a comparatively conservative duo who also just met Billy and Annie the previous night. All of them are heading to Vegas for Billy and Annie’s impetuous nuptials, but the feel-good vibe of the trip is obliterated when a half-naked woman appears in the road, firing a gun at the car. The car is run off the road and the woman now lays dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Now the group is stranded in the blistering heat, miles from civilization, left to figure out what to do about the corpse in the road, but more importantly, what to do to save themselves.
This is the set-up of Death Valley, a noir-flavored crime-drama, and it’s not a bad one at all. Starting off as sort of an adult riff on I Know What You Did Last Summer before winding up as a desert-set Ten Little Indians, the film is conceptually sound. But it isn’t long before Death Valley’s weaknesses make themselves apparent. As the characters bicker incessantly, the cracks in their already tenuous relationships begin forming. They differ over what to do about the body, and when no one else comes down the road to assist them, they collectively make the ill-advised decision to march out into the desert to locate an adjacent highway that Billy swears exists. Billy brings along a big ol’ bag of drugs and a cache of champagne (to “stay hydrated”). As the characters’ nerves begin to fray, things grow increasingly strained. When one of them turns up mysteriously dead, that’s where the train bids farewell to the rails.
There’s a potentially good movie to be made from this premise, but that movie remains unmade. Death Valley is a chore to sit through because its characters are so aggressively unlikable, and in Billy’s case, downright insufferable. Unlikable can often be a workable character trait, but not when coupled with uninteresting, and that one-two punch is fatal to Death Valley’s quartet. The group’s endless squabbling grows tedious quickly, and the dialogue they exchange is uniquely lousy (commenting on Billy’s driving skills, Roy points out that he’s less a “master driver than a masturbator.” Oof). If you’re going to make a film that hinges almost entirely on characters talking, then those characters need to be appealing or arresting in some manner, and the things they say to one another must be compelling. As neither is the case in Death Valley, it makes for a rough 88 minutes.
The film attempts to manufacture depth by gradually revealing the characters’ deep, dark secrets, but learning that Billy was an alcoholic who tragically lost the love of his life or that Roy is a secret drug dealer or that Billy and Jamie had a torrid affair the night before has no teeth. Since, other than Roy and Jamie, none of these people have known each other for more than a day, how much could any of this information truly matter to them, least of all trysts where the betrayers have only known the betrayees for a matter of hours? Nothing and no one in Death Valley passes the smell test of basic believability. The characters endure complete personality shifts or have inauthentic reactions to dramatic events at regular intervals. By the time the film culminates in a Usual Suspects-aping denouement, it becomes apparent that no one involved in Death Valley cracked how to do anything beyond the construction of flimsy, overcooked melodrama.
As a result of the iffy script, the cast is left to flounder. Pratt is barely allowed to make any impression at all. Tarabay is handed the most inconsistent character by a landslide. Munro has the douchebag dial cranked up so high that it blacks out the neighborhood. Law fares the best of the bunch. It’s an underwritten, underdeveloped role, to be sure, but she brings a dash of moxie to it. In a hypothetical scenario where someone does good work in Death Valley, it would have to be her.
The lone gold star that Death Valley receives goes to the cinematography, which is often quite striking. The way the camera gazes lovingly upon the desert mounds and desolate peaks is at times breathtaking. Death Valley doesn’t appear to have broken any banks during its production, but it looks fantastic. It looks so good that watching it on mute and excising all the characters’ endless, tiresome jabber-jawing from the equation might be the smart play. The desert is brutal and unforgiving enough without these people making it that much worse.
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