Overview: Just out of prison, Jae and her brother head to a music festival in the desert along with a crew of strangers only to find themselves stranded together and at the end of their rope. Winterstone Pictures; 2016; Not Rated; 92 minutes.
The Set Up: Stories about surviving the elements appeal to audiences because they are often allegory for dealing with the issues of our lives. Some teach a lesson while others are just parables, warnings against poor planning and bad decision making. Deserted is the latter of these two, and though its characters fail to pack adequately for their trip they all come with some hefty baggage. Jae (Mischa Barton) has just been released from prison, her even stare challenging anyone who might question her about the crime or the time. Her brother Robin (Jackson Davis) is eager to ease her transition home, and between the two of them somehow manage to shine the entire film. Though Robin is willing to stay home for Jae’s first weekend back, after some mild pressure he’s convinced to take her along with his girlfriend to a hippie music festival in the desert, Burn the Moon. As with any similar story, car trouble leaves Jae, Robin, his girlfriend Rosemary, and her friends stranded on the side of the road hoping for a tow. Upon arriving at a rundown little bar, they serendipitously meet another group heading the same direction, who offer to share their RV and their personalities. It’s double trouble for this gang who end up, once again, stranded in the middle of nowhere.
The Players: There’s a weird tonal shift in the film here. After camping out for the night and trying peyote, a pleasant evening filled with mindless rambling and swirling stars, Rosemary is found dead in her tent and the group is splintered. There’s some vague arguments about laced drugs, but all in all everyone seems to accept the reality and focus on getting back to civilization. Leaving Rosemary’s body in the RV-now-morgue, they begin their long walk to find help. Before long it becomes obvious that Rosemary is the lucky one, as the rest seem doomed to slowly shrivel up like tumbleweeds rolling through the sand. As the group wanders around in circles fearing for their lives they find irritants and idiosyncrasies to become miserable about and inflamed by their parched throats and sunburns.There’s something special about watching people get lost in the desert. Removing people from their familiar surroundings and placing their lives in dangers has a way of exposing who someone really is and how persistent they are or aren’t in the face of adversity. That’s what’s great about Deserted. At its best, it’s an interesting character study on how different people deal with difficulties in their lives. At its worst, it’s a meandering collage of picturesque landscape shots and petty conflicts that do little to further character growth or plot. Unfortunately it seems to lean on the latter with its weaker cast members who give breadth only to the meaninglessness of the situation. Whether they spitefully stay together or split up for necessity, each character travels down their own path to survival or demise. Sometimes these deaths are avoidable or just anticlimactic, but giving up looks different to different people. What is it that separates survivors from victims? It would seem, rather predictably, that someone who has dealt with severe hardships in life (like being in prison) would have an easier time staying calm and persevering. That’s why it’s unsurprising and generally accepted that Jae knows how to deal with snake bites, sandstorms, and staying sane. The strength is in Barton’s ability to pull off the performance despite its weak conception. Otherwise, everyone slides into their cliche roles effortlessly and are forgotten, for better or worse, the minute they leave the picture.
What Did You Expect? Deserted suffers from an anticlimactic ending, but that’s sort of what you’d expect if you were really lost in the desert. No inbred cannibals arrive, no post-punk cult of weirdos sabotage their survival, and no threatening monster lurks in the night. More bloodthirsty viewers may expect these tropes and will be rightfully disappointed, but the monster in Deserted is quieter – an admirable attempt, but the script just isn’t there to carry it. Each person contends with the ugliness of their own hearts and an impatience with each other, all while parched and afraid, but the lack of depth scatters any potential meaning into the wind. If anything is taken away from this film, it might be that it would be much easier to deal with personal struggles in the comfort of our own homes. If it inspires you to be open and honest in the interest of avoiding finding yourself in a Job-like situation then it has done a service – though maybe not the one it intends to.
Overall: The heart and idea is there in Deserted, but a flimsy script and lack of follow-through causes this thriller to evaporate in spite of any effort the actors bring to the table.
Featured Image: Winterstone Pictures