Review: ‘2 Graves in the Desert,’ starring Michael Madsen, William Baldwin, Cassie Howarth and Ivan Gonzalez

March 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

William Baldwin and Michael Madsen in “2 Graves in the Desert” (Photo courtesy of 4Digital Media)

“2 Graves in the Desert”

Directed by Benjamin Goalabré

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Southwest region of the United States (including Nevada and Arizona), “2 Graves in the Desert” is a drama/crime thriller with an almost-all white cast of characters representing the criminal underworld.

Culture Clash:  Two thugs have kidnapped two other people who operate on the wrong side of the law.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal primarily to people who like pulp B-movies, but there are numerous other films that are much better than this unimaginative drivel.

Cassie Howarth and Ivan Gonzalez in “2 Graves in the Desert” (Photo courtesy of 4Digital Media)

“2 Graves in the Desert” is a poorly written, sloppily directed movie that tries very hard to be like an early Quentin Tarantino film, even down to casting actor Michael Madsen, who co-starred in “Reservoir Dogs,” writer/director Tarantino’s 1992 feature film debut. But whereas Tarantino films are known for their memorable characters and unique dialogue, the opposite can be said of director Benjamin Goalabré’s “2 Graves in the Desert,” which falls into the “generic and forgettable” category of bad movies.

The movie essentially revolves around four characters and this plot: Two sleazy brothers—alpha-male Mario (played by William Baldwin) and his follower brother Vince (played by Madsen)—have beaten up and kidnapped a drug dealer named Eric (played by Ivan Gonzalez) and a high-priced hooker named Blake (played by Cassie Howarth) and dumped them in the back of a flatbed truck that the two brothers drive out to the desert. During the course of the movie, viewers find out why these two people were kidnapped. It’s a journey that’s more excruciating to watch because of the terrible dialogue and substandard acting rather than whatever brutalities are being portrayed on screen.

At the beginning of the film, Mario and Vince are out in the desert talking about James Cameron’s “Titanic” movie (of all things), while Mario urinates on some cactus. Mario is convinced that black people were among the stars in the movie and that everyone died on the Titanic. Mario thinks Samuel L. Jackson must’ve been in the movie since Jackson is an African American actor who’s been in a lot of blockbuster movies. (This mention of Jackson is another nod to Tarantino, since Jackson has been in several Tarantino films too.)

Vince tells Mario that all the stars of “Titanic” were actually white, and there were survivors in the story. Vince is right, of course, but Mario acts like that’s not possible, which is an indication of how Mario is arrogant and not as smart as he thinks he is. This pop-culture debate in “2 Graves in the Desert” is very Tarantino-esque, but there’s nothing funny or clever about it. This scene only serves the purpose to set up the flashback to the night before (what happened night before is the majority of the movie), so that the opening scene can be repeated again when the movie catches up to that part of the story.

Viewers don’t see how Eric and Blake were kidnapped, but it’s shown that it happened in Las Vegas and the truck is now heading somewhere else. The first time Eric and Blake are seen on screen is when they’re in the back of the truck, with bloody gashes on their heads, duct tape over their mouths, and wrapped thoroughly in cocoons made out of of cellophane. Eric manages to bite off the duct tape from his mouth and he does the same for Blake. She’s unconscious at first, but then regains consciousness.

But when Blake regains consciousnesses, the upper part of her body has been freed from the cellophane, while Eric is still wrapped up in his cocoon. She eventually frees herself and Eric from their cellophane bondage. An iPad in the back of the truck is suddenly operating and set to FaceTime mode with Mario and Vince, who are seated in the front of the truck with their own mobile device so they can keep video surveillance on their kidnapping victims. Mario and Vince use the iPad to communicate with Eric and Blake for the rest of the ride to the desert.

Mario tells Eric and Blake during the first FaceTime chat that he loosened the bonds for Blake to make things more comfortable and tells them that it’s kind of like this kidnapping’s version of business class. It isn’t clear if Mario and Vince checked to see if their kidnapping victims had any cell phones on them before they were put in the back of the truck. Blake doesn’t have a cell phone, but Eric does.

Most people in this situation would immediately call 911 or any police. But not Eric. The first call he makes is to his brother François (played by Jean Gardeil, who wrote “2 Graves in a Desert” screenplay), who’s been impatiently waiting for Eric at the airport because the two brothers (who are French Canadian) are supposed to visit their ailing mother at a hospital in Canada. Eric frantically tells François that he’s been kidnapped, and all he knows is that he’s trapped in the back of a flatbed truck. François has an odd response: He acts like he doesn’t care or doesn’t believe Eric, and he tells Eric to just get to the hospital as soon as he can.

Eric then calls the Vancouver police department, which tells Eric that they can’t help him because he’s out of their jurisdiction. (Obviously.) Eric also doesn’t know the truck’s make, model, license-plate number or destination. And wouldn’t you know, Eric has a burner phone that can’t be traced and the battery is running low.

Blake wants to know why Eric won’t call 911, but he gives her (and the viewers) no real answer. Considering the emergency situation, her response is a little too passive, because she won’t even try to grab the phone from Eric and call 911 herself. It’s one of the many stupid things about this movie, including the fact that the only woman with a significant on-camera role in the movie is a hooker. It makes the filmmakers look very backwards and sexist.

During the long ride in the truck (which is 80% of the movie), Eric tells Blake that she looks very familiar and he’s sure that they’ve met before. It’s then that Blake tells Eric that she’s a high-priced prostitute, and he was one of her clients. But don’t call her a “prostitute” or “hooker,” she tells Eric, because she’s an “escort.” Eric laughs at her pretentiousness (and most viewers will too) because he tells her it doesn’t matter what she calls herself, she’s still someone who has sex for money.

And why exactly were these two kidnapped? Blake tells Eric that she got a $40,000 fee from a client, and she hid the money from Mario, who’s her pimp. Eric tells Blake that he’s perfected a formula for a new underground drug, and Mario wants Eric to give him the formula, but Eric refuses to do it. The way that Eric describes the drug (which comes in pill form), it sounds like a cross between meth and Viagra.

Eric also tells Blake that he doesn’t care if he dies because he will never reveal the formula to Mario. He then offers Blake one of the pills that he happens to have on him. At first, Blake declines because she drops this bombshell: She’s pregnant. Blake won’t say who the father is, but she tells Eric that Mario thinks that he’s the father. And then she takes the pill anyway.

The tone of this movie is so off-kilter and nonsensical. For example, instead of trying to figure out a plan so they can get away from their captors, Blake and Eric have conversations in the back of the truck like they’re on a date. Blake also seems weirdly fixated on not having Blake negatively judge her for being a sex worker. It’s a little too late for that. He’s already been a client of hers. And apparently, the experience was so forgettable for him that she had to remind him.

In an apparent effort to impress Eric, Blake goes out of her way to tell Eric that she has a degree in economics, as if to prove she’s not a dumb hooker.  But then she acts like a “dumb hooker” by pulling out some bright red lipstick from her purse and doing her makeup in the middle of this horrible situation. (The movie also has some bad continuity problems, because in one scene, Blake has heavy makeup on, and then minutes later, she doesn’t.) What kind of person would care about putting on makeup in the middle of being kidnapped and trapped in the back of a truck? So dumb.

And then there’s the terrible dialogue. Eric asks Blake, “Do you have any plans?” She think he means plans to escape. No, he corrects her, he meant plans “for the weekend.” She replies, “No, I’m the kind of girl who goes with the flow.” What is this? A kidnapping or a dinner date?

Meanwhile, Mario and Vince are occasionally shown in the front of the truck taunting their victims via iPad chats. There’s not much to these one-note performances by Baldwin and Madsen. Baldwin plays the bossy brother, while Madsen plays the brother who just goes along and takes orders. At one point in the movie, Blake and Eric get roughed up by Mario and Vince, just to bring some more violence to the film.

And then Mario and Vince throw a dead body wrapped in black polyethylene in the back of the truck, next to Blake and Eric. Blake and Eric (and the viewers) find out who it is, but even after the body is dumped next to them, Blake and Eric continue their conversation to get to know each other. Eric even tries to kiss her, and they do some canoodling, as if they’re snuggling by a cozy fire instead of being bloodied and beaten and on the way to their potential deaths.

Viewers get no sense of who these characters really are or if what they say about themselves is really true. Eric asks Blake if her parents know that she’s a prostitute, and she tells him that her father committed suicide when she was 15 and her mother is a pill addict. But it’s never explained why Blake went from having a job in Wall Street finance (a career she said she used to have) to being a kidnapped hooker in the back of flatbed truck.

It’s hinted that Eric has a business background too, but the “truth” about their backgrounds might not even matter because the characters in this movie are so unlikable and so untrustworthy that viewers probably won’t care. The only things we know about Mario and Vince’s past is a story about their childhood that Blake tells Eric. That story is tied to something that happens later in the movie.

The four main actors in “2 Graves in the Desert” do little to elevate this movie’s flimsy plot. Baldwin and Madsen look like this movie was just an excuse to party, because their performances are very “phoned in,” although at times it does look like they genuinely enjoy working together. Howarth makes an effort to bring empathy to her Blake character, but she’s limited by the character being written as a vapid sex object. Gonzalez is the worst actor of the four, because his stilted and wooden delivery of the lines ruin some of the scenes that could’ve been more watchable if a better actor had been cast in the role. He really needs to take some more acting lessons.

“2 Graves in the Desert” might have worked slightly better as a short film, because that long ride to the desert is really just a lot of filler that will leave a bad taste in viewers’ mouths.

4Digital Media released “2 Graves in the Desert” on digital HD, VOD and DVD on March 3, 2020.