J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Death in the Desert: The Binion Case Thinly Fictionalized

Las Vegas casino heir Ted Binion once shaved all the hair off his body so the Nevada Gaming Commission would not be able to test it for drug use. Needless to say, they would have found plenty. Delicate viewers should not fret. We will be spared any potentially provocative scenes of that nature in Josh Evans’ Death in the Desert (trailer here), a needlessly fictionalized treatment of the Binion case, which releases today on VOD.

Binion’s Horseshoe was old school, downtown Las Vegas and Ted Binion was its public face. Cheetah’s is classic Vegas, having already gained infamy as the setting of Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls. It was there the technically still married “Ray Easler” (as he is called in John Steppling’s scaredy-cat adaptation of Cathy Scott’s true crime book) meets Kim Davis (Sandra Murphy). She will go from stripper to mobster’s kept woman in about five minutes of screen time.

Of course, Easler is not supposed to associate with known racketeers if he wants to keep his gaming license. He is not supposed to do drugs either, but he regularly hoovers up coke, Xanax, and black tar. Davis tries to moderate his intake, but it is a hopeless battle. Easler’s addictions are too severe and his daddy issues are too deeply rooted. Easler simply isn’t half the man his cold-hearted mobster father was—and he will never let himself forget it. Despite her apparent affection for the wildly unstable Easler, Davis starts a furtive affair with his henchman, Matt Duvall (Rick Tabish). Ironically, it will be Duvall that Easler recruits to help hide his silver.

They call Nevada the Silver State, but Easler really took it to heart. He amassed an enormous cache of silver bullion and coins, which now must be hidden from his soon-to-be ex-wife and the dreaded Gaming Commission. Logically, he decides to bury them in the middle of the desert, because that is what you do in Nevada.

It is hard to fathom Desert’s reason for being, since there was already a made-for-Lifetime movie about the Binion affair that had sufficient guts to use the principals’ real names. However, the erratic, hard-drugging Binion/Easler does seem like a character more in the wheelhouse of Michael Madsen than Matthew Modine. There is no question Madsen is the show to see in Evans’ watered-down tabloid tale, but Roxy Saint adds a bit of goth spice singing and vampy as Cory, Davis’s alt-rocker colleague at the strip joint.

Shayla Beesley looks convincingly like a stripper, but Steppling does not give her any decent dialogue from which viewers could fairly base any further judgements. To further stack the deck against her, most of her scenes not including Madsen are opposite the alarmingly over-made-up Paz de la Huerta. Is she supposed to be related to Tammy Faye Bakker? At least she registers. John Palladino’s blow-dried Duvall has to be one of the flattest, most vapid performances you will ever immediately forget.

By far, the most entertaining aspect of Desert is Madsen’s if-I-had-only-known narration, recited from the perspective of the now deceased Easler. It is totally silly, yet it follows in the tradition of many infinitely superior film noirs. Frankly, Evans and Steppling do not even bother to tell us how it all worked out. You would never know from the film Murphy and Tabish were twice tried for Binion’s murder, first convicted and then acquitted. Some folks might consider that the stuff of high drama, but Desert just sort of peters out before any of that happens. Frankly, it is sort of amazing how many dubious decisions are strung together in Death in the Desert. Not recommended, it hits VOD platforms today.

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