'Desolate': Film Review

Desolate Still 2 - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Film
A bone-dry crime film that suffocates under its heavy mood.

Frederick Cipoletti's crime yarn is set amid farmlands suffering apocalyptic drought.

Frederick Cipoletti's Desolate begins in familiar post-apocalyptic fashion, with shots of desiccated fields and a voiceover describing how lands have been struck by an "isolated cataclysm, or some shit like that." But if the "isolated" part of that description prompts one immediate objection — why haven't our protagonists just moved to greener pastures nearby? — the unfolding plot eventually demands another: Why does a story about desperate men stealing a fortune from a human-trafficking gang need to be weighed down with a dystopian setup that has little to no bearing on the action? A solid (if conspicuously handsome) cast does justice to the grim mood of Cipoletti's sophomore feature, but that mood sometimes suffocates a script that deviates little from genre expectations.

Will Brittain's Billy is the youngest boy in a family whose patriarch Duke Stone (James Russo) runs his land like a beleaguered military outpost. Older sons stand guard against bandits — though it's unclear what remains here that's worth stealing — and don't ask questions when sent on violent missions: After a brother is killed by a nearby family for reasons that aren't immediately clear, the youngsters go to execute him with their embittered father's pistol.

When they learn that the killing had something to do with efforts to kidnap local women, the Stones start following clues to a hideout, in an area outside the drought zone, where prisoners are held awaiting their sale into prostitution. Led by the earnest-seeming Kyle (Bill Tangradi), they set the women free while stealing as much cash as they can carry out before the bad guys (an out-of-place pan-Asian crime gang) return and start shooting. Billy is wounded and left behind. His squirrelly brother Ned (Tyson Ritter, acting as if he were in the throes of a drug addiction the script never mentions) has told Kyle the boy was killed, but Billy, assuming they both knew he was still alive, now wants to punish them for abandoning him.

To its credit, the film doesn't handle sex-trafficking in an exploitative way. Its interest is mostly limited to the threat traffickers might pose to Billy's girlfriend Kayla, a tacked-on worry Cipoletti ranks far below a more familiar one: Now that the gangsters know who they are, can Kyle and Ned stay out of trouble long enough to either return the money or get away?

There's some promise in Billy's encounter with the mysterious Van (Callan Mulvey), who saves his life and seems to be part of an underground vigilante group. But Van's ambiguous role in the action is never satisfactorily explained; soon, one starts to feel the script's multiple underdeveloped elements will never add up to much. Despite planting seeds it has pulled from several genres that should go well together, the film yields only a slightly better result than the Stone clan's unwatered fields.

Production company: Mill House Motion Pictures
Distributor: Uncork'd Entertainment
Cast: Will Brittain, Callan Mulvey, Tyson Ritter, Bill Tangradi, Jonathan Rosenthal, Natasha Bassett, James Russo
Director: Frederick Cipoletti
Screenwriters: Frederick Cipoletti, Jonathan Rosenthal
Producers: Frederick Cipoletti, Jordan Foley, Jonathan Rosenthal
Executive producers: Jeremie Guiraud, Jack Sheehan
Director of photography: Isaac Bauman
Production designer: Carlos Laszlo
Costume designer: Yasmine Abraham
Editors: Ciacomo Ambrosini, Scott Beatty
Composer: Nima Fakhrara
Casting director: Brandon Henry Rodriguez

88 minutes