' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...White Sands

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Some Drivel On...White Sands

“White Sands” takes its name from the national park in southern New Mexico. Like no other place on Earth, its website boasts. I don’t doubt it. Alas, Roger Donaldson’s unremembered movie does not honor its impressive namesake. Granted, it is packed with actors who are like no one else: Willem Dafoe, Mickey Rourke, M. Emmet Walsh, Fred Dalton Thompson, even Maura Tierney, whose unique energy Hollywood, as “White Sands” reproves, has frustratingly never known quite how to harness. Daniel Pyne’s screenplay, though, is one that hangs its actors out to dry by over-relying on non-stop twists and turns taking us further and further away from what the actors seem to be trying to do in the first place, reaching the unfortunate point in the middle of the movie where you can tell the entire thing is just a house of cards waiting to collapse. The best shot in the movie, in fact, is the last one, doubling as a metaphor for the movie itself, so much sand running emptily through our hands.

Donaldson’s movie opens with small town Sheriff, Ray Dolezal (Dafoe), being summoned to the middle of nowhere in the White Sands where hikers have discovered a dead body and your standard-issue suitcase filled with $500,000. The coroner, Bert (Walsh), half-jokingly suggests to Ray they keep the cash for themselves, who would know, and Dafoe plays this moment marvelously, looking past Walsh as he suggests it, brushing it off without saying a word, silently establishing his worldview. It also establishes the rapport between the two actors, deepened back at the office where excavating a bullet from the body becomes an improbable comedy routine, evoking two people very used to working together.

It could have been the whole movie, really, Ray and Bert. But “White Sands” moves Bert aside early by having Ray decide of his own volition to go undercover as the dead man, Bob Spencer, calling a phone number off a piece of paper digested by the deceased and dug up by the curious coroner. Ray is in over his head almost from the jump, losing the money to a couple red herring characters and then realizing that money belonged to an FBI investigation that wants him to keep on the case not so much to find out what’s going on as get that money back. The lead agent is played by Samuel L. Jackson back in those strange early 90s days when filmmakers were just as liable to tamp down his patented frenzy as unleash it. 

On the other hand, Rourke, playing the magnificently named arms dealer Gorman Lennox, ably employs a laconic cool belying a violent streak that is rather effective, at least until his reveal, that he’s working for the CIA, which Rourke seems to play like the writerly b.s. it is, like even he doesn’t believe it, like this other guy’s more fun. Either way, Gorman leads Ray into the shadowy world of America’s military industrial complex in the form of a femme fatale, Lane Bodine (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), helping broker weapons to South American freedom fighters. That’s not a bad idea, but “White Sands” reduces it to a MacGuffin, preferring to hone in on the idea of Ray getting In Too Deep.

This never really works. Though Lane calls Ray out for being an undercover yokel almost immediately, she never exactly lords this information over him to make him do things he doesn’t want, as “White Sands” plays it more like a conventional love affair. And that temptation is supposed to be contrasted against Ray’s straight and narrow lifestyle, though his wife (Mimi Rogers) is never really established as a person, just an emblem, meaning such temptation holds no juice. (There is also the strange situation with Ray’s kid’s bike. That is to say, a couple times in the early scenes, we see Ray’s kid leave his bike in persnickety places, seeming to foreshadow some event where his bike either gets in the way or saves the day at a pressure-packed moment, only to never materialize, suggesting something was cut or dropped.) Dafoe, meanwhile, is almost always stepping wrong. When the character is supposed to feel the pull of an illicit lifestyle, he comes across too buttoned-up; when the character is supposed to feel buttoned-up, he comes across as if he’s feeling the pull of an illicit lifestyle. It leaves the whole movie and its emergent madness feeling rudderless and sort of intrinsically suggests that sometimes a movie’s plot grows so confusing, it can even confuse the great actor it stars. 

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