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(The 2024 Tribeca Film Festival ran June 5-16, and as always, we have many boots on the ground. Check out M.J. O’Toole’s’s A Desert movie review. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

What lurks beneath the barren, yet scenic wastelands of modern America? Director Joshua Erkman’s feature debut A Desert is a terrifying cautionary tale about seeking the sublime, only to unexpectedly end up in a place quite the opposite. In this ambitious nail-biter, a middle-aged photographer (Kai Lennox) ventures out to the sandy and rocky landscapes of the American Southwest seeking inspiration to breathe new life into his faltering career. But the tranquility he seeks gradually takes a turn for the worse, putting him and unintentionally the lives of others on a drastically different journey. From a script co-written by him and Bossi Baker, Erkman takes the quiet, peaceful energy that’s desired to capture an image and gradually builds it up to one of the most skin-crawling experiences of the year. One truly intriguing thing about the film is how it takes its time unraveling the nightmare at the center without losing its momentum. Whether during its more quiet or jaw-dropping moments, you’ll undoubtedly be pinned to your seat.

By the time we meet our photographer Alex (Lennox) at the intro, he is already well into his newest photo project, which involves traveling through barren deserts and eerie ghost towns, but not without a little jazz on the car radio. With an old 8×10 large format camera in tow, Alex is a modern-day Ansel Adams trying to get his career and vision back on track by capturing the breathtaking landscapes and derelict spots (old cinemas, military bases, etc). He considers this project to represent “a moment where the unforgiving power of nature is gradually reclaiming its topography from what man has built on it.” In a sense, director Erkman takes on the role of photographer as well, working with cinematographer Jay Keitel (She Dies Tomorrow) to carefully frame and light each subject Alex captures – putting us in his shoes in the brightest and eerily dimmest of places. Through phone calls with his wife, it becomes clear how more at home he feels in desolate lands. But as he will soon learn the hard way, such pursuit of enlightenment and personal freedom isn’t without its hazards. 

Crashing at a rundown seedy motel, he gets an unwanted knock on the door by wild-eyed, disheveled local Renny (Zachary Ray Sherman). Sherman is masterfully discomforting in his role, and his wild, sinister energy matches that of a younger Willem Dafoe. Seeing his large camera, Renny asks Alex to photograph him and his sister Susie (Ashley B. Smith). The two “siblings” though share a somewhat unnerving energy that doesn’t give off the usual brother-sister vibe. Alex clearly wants nothing to do with the duo but he is soon pressured to not only take their photo but to join them in quite the bender of an evening. A hungover Alex later crosses paths with Renny again who convinces him to see an overlooked site and the place of his birth. Alex, against his better judgment, lets this unpredictable stranger accompany him. This decision puts him on a drastically different journey. This is where Erkman takes a page from Hitchcock’s book in terms of defying expectations in jaw-dropping ways that make you want to keep guessing about what comes next.

At this point, the film segues into a second chapter where we meet L.A. woman Sam (Sarah Lind) who hires world-weary private investigator Harold (“The Jesus Lizard” frontman David Yow) to get to the bottom of a loved one’s disappearance. A former cop with a shady past, Harold’s investigation soon takes him to the same region where our initial protagonist Alex wound up. The connection between the two chapters is well established at the beginning of this act. The viewer is now put inside Harold’s shoes, and just like him, they will try putting the pieces together to figure out what the hell is really going on. I must be cautious because I don’t want to spoil anything here, but the second half is where A Desert takes flight into more terrifying and shocking territory. But it’s also one where the camera is solidified as a MacGuffin in terms of capturing one’s own perspective and reality, whether it’s merely for something artistic…or something pure evil.

As the head-spinning labyrinth of Lynch’s Lost Highway crossed with the neo-noir brutality of the Coen Brother’s Blood Simple, A Desert is sure to leave you breathless especially long after the credits roll. From the brightness of the wide open deserts to the darkness of subterranean lairs, there’s a deep sense of fear and wickedness that will not leave your side. Erkman never pulls any fast punches for the sake of “shock value” and instead has us sit tight until the ever-rising wave of dread soaks over, making his feature debut a horror standout of the year. The ensemble brings plenty to the table as well, with each of the actors giving their respective characters an enormity that ranges from weary to grotesque. Older audiences will hopefully spot the various cinematic homages, that is if they’re game to sit through this anxiety-inducing sandstorm of a film. Erkman plays the right notes here, and I look forward to what he comes up with next.

– M.J. O’Toole (@mj_otoole93)

2024 Tribeca Film Festival; Joshua Erkman; A Desert movie review

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