Tribeca 2024 Review: A DESERT, Nightmares and Dreamscapes in a Riveting Thriller Debut

Directed by Joshua Erkman, the film stars David Yow, Kai Lennox, Sarah Lind, Zachary Ray Sherman, Ashley B. Smith, and Rob Zabrecky.

Contributing Writer
Tribeca 2024 Review: A DESERT, Nightmares and Dreamscapes in a Riveting Thriller Debut

Alex (Kai Lennox), a formerly successful photographer, travels through the wastelands of Arizona taking pictures of dilapidated spaces that have a distinctive haunted look. The way he phrases it to his wife Sam (Sarah Lind), who's waiting for him at home, he is aiming to “purposely get lost” in order to recapture his creativity that has apparently waned throughout the years.

Staying at a seedy motel, Alex overhears some disturbing behavior from the couple in the next room. His call to the front desk results in the pair manifesting at his doorstep – a wild-looking Renny (Zachary Ray Sherman) and the woman he refers to as his sister, Susie Q (Ashley B. Smith). Despite obvious red flags all around, Alex reluctantly agrees to take their picture and hang out with them. It’s better to go into this movie without knowing anything else beyond this point.

At first, A Desert plays out like something out of Stephen King’s body of work. His short stories and some of the novels deal with this kind of narrative a lot: a stranger venturing into an unknown territory – be it a desert, woods or a rural road in the middle of nowhere - where they usually encounter forces bigger and more powerful than them.

Bring the supplies, bring the maps, King would advise on the matter in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, but what if the landscape in question is indeed uncharted and no maps are available to navigate it? Here, Joshua Erkman’s feature debut heads straight into David Lynch’s territory, somewhere amongst the ranks of Twin Peaks and Lost Highway - some place where the border between two worlds has worn thin.

Erkman’s film balances right on that border, lingering at the precipice of that fragile state between a dream and the reality (cue another King reference), and the film’s aesthetics recapture this feverish quality in both the visuals and the sound. There are a lot of hauntings going on here: from the places Alex is so obsessed with shooting, that are forever inhabited by the stories that once happened there, to Alex himself, chasing the ghost of his own creative past across the Arizonian desert. His wife is reminiscing about the phantoms of their marital happiness, and the private detective Harold Palladino (David Yow), who enters the picture at some point, is trying to catch up with a better, less morally ambiguous version of himself.

Then, there is the desert itself, the wilderness that is also represented by Sherman’s Renny – the literal force of nature, the Bob of this realm. The raw material of life, some would say. What Alex sees in Renny might be a greater reason for him to ignore common sense rather than just him trying to be a polite guy.

Alex sees something primal and fierce, something he lacks himself. Renny eventually accuses him of being a “tourist” – someone who is only passing the great unknown for some pretty, conceptual pics without actually willing to take a dive into its heart of darkness.

That’s an important theme for Erkman’s debut, as underneath the horror shocks and the neo-noir vibe, there is a lot being said here about the creation and the perception of art. Cinema in particular, as a blank movie screen is the image that is being repeated throughout the whole film.

The plunge into any actual exploration of the reality is a pretty gritty affair, as – to paraphrase Stephen King for the last time – the world has teeth and can bite you with them any time it wants. Sometimes the teeth are literal.

The film enjoys its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival. It screens again tonight

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Ashley B. SmithDavid YowJoshua ErkmanKai LennoxRob ZabreckySarah LindTribeca 2024Tribeca FestivalZachary Ray Sherman

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