A DESERT (Tribeca 2024) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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Alex (Kai Lennox) is a middle-aged photographer looking for inspiration to breathe new life into his dwindling professional career. Returning to the beat-up yet strangely alluring landscapes of rural Southwestern America, its sweeping deserts and abandoned buildings hold the promise of a rebirth of sorts for Alex, who – as he drives from location to location – seems particularly tuned in to the possible return of his artistic intuition.

Pausing for rest at a random, run-down motel, a chance encounter with wild-eyed, wild-living brother and sister Renny (Zachary Ray Sherman) and Susie (Ashely B Smith) puts Alex on a dramatically different journey. This is, before too long, one soon retraced by his long-suffering wife Sam (Sarah Lind) and Harold, a private detective with a shady past, played to perfection by vocalist of post-hardcore band The Jesus Lizard, David Yow.

Masterfully directed by Joshua Erkman and with its recent world premiere at Tribeca, A Desert contains fucking multitudes. A surface consideration might prompt a lazier critic to draw parallels with Psycho and Twentynine Palms, and that it feels like it takes place within a similar narrative world of films of this caliber is quite the compliment. But on further reflection, with A Desert Erkman also clearly shares with both Hitchcock and Dumont a broader and notably intuitive understanding of the meta-cinematic.

From this perspective, A Desert should be best celebrated as a Choose Your Own Adventure film for sickos. It has so many dynamic moving parts that are all meticulously and soulfully orchestrated. This leaves room simultaneously for both a pedestrian, literal encounter if its mere popcorn-fuelled shits-and-giggles you’re after, and something altogether much deeper and more profound if that is the way that the film speaks to you.

With Erkman at the helm, his collaborators both on screen and behind the scenes clearly understood the assignment. Lennox and Yow bring an earthy, grizzled weariness to the material, while Lind further establishes herself as one of the strongest – if not gutsiest – actresses working in indie horror today. Sherman and Smith elevate what in the hands of other performers might collapse into parody, bringing to Renny and Susie a kind of grotesque enormity that extends well beyond the scope of their practical function in propelling the film’s narrative.

All of this is brought to life by an expert crew working in perfect harmony, with particular note to Jay Keitel’s bruising cinematography, Star Rosencrans’s anxiety-inducing editing, and Courtney and Hilary Andujar’s extraordinary production design (the latter especially surely a character in its own right, and a key aspect that grants the film its indelible, lingering mental imprint).

With each frame burning with a kind of invisible yet unrelenting heat, A Desert is a powerful portrait of lost souls meandering in the margins of cinema’s infinitely barren landscapes.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).