American Desert, 2021.
Directed by Adrian Bartol.
Starring Will Brandt, Ruby Modine, Michael Ironside, Amber Coney, Callum Blue and Robert LaSardo.
Matt (Will Brandt) returns home from Afghanistan still haunted by the memories of his experiences. After one night he meets up with Brandi (Ruby Modine), which soon leads to a meeting with Uncle Bill (Michael Ironside).
This small town melodrama is not quick to inspire. Character introductions are slight, while a seemingly free flowing structure promises audiences something pedestrian. However, as events begin to build in the background these characters gradually become more dynamic. A staggeringly barren landscape consisting of arid dust bowls, mountainous crags and serene woodland glades seep into the narrative. Slowly audiences are drawn into a deceptively simple three hander, by locations which imbue situations with a quiet desperation.
Dialogue exchanges lack edge, invite apathy and court indifference. Even the reliable Michael Ironside seems diluted down in a role which offers him nothing of substance. However, as the voiceover from Will Brandt’s Matt lessens and simple dialogue vignettes expand into more provocative confrontation, American Desert gets some backbone.
Written and directed by Adrian Bartol, who also contributes a haunting piano based score, American Desert is essentially a redemption story. Small town politics, diminished dreams and petty drug dealers make up the population of a story with few soft edges. Everyone from the broken Brandi, played with brazen candour by Ruby Modine, through to her seedy Uncle Bill are almost beyond repair. Only Matt seems capable of salvation, in a film which remains loose yet never loses direction. That very little happens from beginning to end and yet elements converge seamlessly is a miracle.
American Desert is intentionally indie, hauntingly stylised and features performances in keeping with the small town tone. There is a claustrophobia that invades every frame, despite the town being surrounded by scorched tundra for miles in every direction. Plot wise events could not be simpler in conception or execution. Matt meets Brandi before teaming up with Uncle Bill, before revelations, betrayal and death lead to an enforced epiphany. That these plot points are delivered with style, lack cliché and yet acknowledge genre staples says much for these writers.
In the closing third as events culminate in a spiritual pilgrimage, American Desert embraces a campfire fable vibe before resolution is reached. Intimately impressive and carried by some deceptively considered performances, Adrian Bartol and Will Brandt have fashioned something unique that is guaranteed to quietly impress.
Carrying hints of Terrence Malick’s Badlands in its adoration of an unspoiled Americana, this film uses an unforgiving landscape to exemplify the isolation of a community in free fall. Building story through individual moments which snowball into endgame tragedy, American Desert is a powerful piece of cinema that packs an emotional punch.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★