Review: ‘Death in Texas,’ starring Ronnie Gene Blevins, Bruce Dern, Lara Flynn Boyle and Stephen Lang

July 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ronnie Gene Blevins in “Death in Texas” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Death in Texas”

Directed by Scott Windhauser

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in El Paso, Texas, the dramatic film “Death in Texas” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A recently released ex-con finds himself returning to a life of crime so that he can get enough money to pay for his mother’s life-or-death liver transplant. 

Culture Audience: “Death in Texas” will appeal primarily to people who like watching violent crime movies with badly written, unrealistic scenes.

Bruce Dern in “Death in Texas” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Death in Texas” has too many far-fetched scenarios to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, this dreadful crime drama takes itself way too seriously. There’s a lot of corny acting from experienced actors who embarrass themselves by being in this movie. And anyone who has even the slightest knowledge of organ transplants and hospitals will be cringing at the preposterous plot development in the last third of the movie.

Written and directed by Scott Windhauser, “Death in Texas” is also exceedingly tedious with its nonsensical murders that are nothing but excuses to fill this movie with violent and often-unrealistic fight scenes. The first clue that “Death in Texas” is a constant failure at realism is in the opening scene when 37-year-old prisoner Billy Walker (played by Ronnie Gene Blevins) is in a parole hearing and gets paroled in a very phony “only in a movie” moment. (“Death in Texas” takes place primarily in El Paso, Texas, but the movie was actually filmed in New Mexico.)

During the parole hearing, which has a parole board of only two people—one named Charles (played by Clark Harris) and one named Antonio (played by Daniel Steven Gonzalez)—Billy is being questioned about his rehabiltation while in prison. Billy is asked, “Do you take responsibility for your crime?” Billy replies, “As much as I can.” It’s not exactly a sign of remorse, which is a requirement to get paroled.

Billy says that he wants to be paroled so that he can take care of his mother. Charles and Antonio are not convinced that Billy has been fully rehabilitated and is ready for release. Just as they’re about to deny parole to Billy, a woman who is later revealed as parole officer Sarah Jensen (played by Veronica Burgess) suddenly appears and shows Charles and Antonio something in a file of papers. And just like that, Charles and Antonio change their minds and sign off on Billy getting parole.

Through flashbacks, the movie shows that Billy was in prison for manslaughter, and he served seven years in prison for this crime before being paroled. When his mother Grace Edwards (played by Lara Flynn Boyle) was a waitress at a diner, Billy witnessed a customer (played by Morgan Redmond) physically harassing Grace. And so, an enraged Billy beat up this man so badly that he died. The deadly assault took place in full view of other people at the diner, so there was no mystery over who committed the crime.

It’s shown many times throughout “Death in Texas” that Billy is so devoted to his mother that he will do anything for her. And yet, after Billy gets paroled, he’s shown walking by himself on a deserted highway, like a pitiful ex-con with no one who cares about him, and then showing up at Grace’s house unannounced. She seems elated and surprised to see him.

This homecoming scene doesn’t ring true, because Billy is such a mama’s boy that he would be the type to tell his mother that he was paroled, so she would be ready for him when he got released. After all, Billy has nowhere else to go but to live with his mother after getting out of prison. Considering all the extreme trouble that Billy goes through for his mother in this story, you’d think he’d tell her that he was paroled and that he needed a place to stay instead of just showing up without telling her in advance.

It’s one of many inconsistent and sloppily written scenes in the movie, which awkwardly tries to be gritty when it comes to all the criminal activities, but then attempts to be mawkishly sentimental when it comes to anything to do with Grace. Her backstory is revealed in bits and pieces of conversations in the movie. Grace gave birth to Billy when she was 15 years old, and her marriage to Billy’s father’s ended in divorce. She also got divorced from her second husband.

Soon after Billy is released from prison, Grace (who is currently a receptionist for a law firm) is having a small house party attended by her current boyfriend Todd (played by Craig Nigh), who brags to Billy about the four days that he spent incarcerated. It should come as no surprise that Billy and Todd clash immediately, and they end up having a fist fight. Grace admits to Billy that Todd is a jerk and that she has horrible taste in men. Todd is never seen again for the rest of the movie.

Grace has a much bigger problem than a tendency to get involved with losers. She needs a liver transplant, but she has rare type AB blood and can’t find a donor match. Her liver is failing not because she abused alcohol or drugs but because it might be a congenital conditon. If Grace doesn’t get the transplant, she’ll die. And what Billy does to try to solve this problem is more eye-rolling nonsense.

First, Billy goes to see Grace’s physician Dr. Perkins (played by Sam Daly) to find out what he can do to help Grace find a donor. Dr. Perkins says that he can’t reveal certain information about Grace’s condition because of doctor-patient confidentiality. And then, Dr. Perkins proceeds to violate that confidentiality and all sorts of other medical ethics by telling Billy everything private about Grace’s medical situation that Billy wants to know.

Dr. Perkins tells Billy that Grace has six months to one year to live. The doctor keeps changing this life-expectancy number to a shorter period of time the more this idiotic movie goes on, until Grace supposedly only has a few days left to live. Dr. Perkins also mentions that because Grace is so far down on a waiting list to find a donor, it’s impossible for her to get a liver in time, unless she can get a liver on the black market.

Dr. Perkins says that he knows someone in Guadalajara, Mexico, who can sell a liver for $160,000. And as a warning to Billy not to report any medical violations, the doctor tells Billy, “I’ll obviously deny that we had this conversation.” The $160,000 price tag is way beyond what Billy can afford, so it makes him desperate. Even if Billy had ever heard of legal ways to raise money for a health crisis, such as starting a crowdsourcing campaign on GoFundMe, there would be no “Death in Texas” movie if he did things legally to solve this problem.

Billy makes several attempts to find a legitimate job, but he’s rejected by every place he goes to find work because he’s an ex-con on parole. A friend of his named Kevin (played by Rocko Reyes) is a manager at a car dealership that’s owned by Kevin’s father. In a job interview, Kevin tells Billy that he would hire Billy, but Kevin’s father is the one who doesn’t want any felons working for the company.

And so, with time running out to get the money for the liver, it becomes inevitable that Billy turns to a life of crime. He decides he’ll get the money he wants by robbing other criminals. First, he targets a drug dealer named Tyler Griggs (played by Mike Foy), a former acquaintance of Billy’s, who looks and acts like a bad parody of a rapper, complete with gold teeth and a laughably horrible attempt to sound like he’s a white guy who grew up in a black ghetto.

An even bigger robbery target is a drug rehab guru named Richard Reynolds (played by Bruce Dern), a rich entrepreneur with a shady past. He currently owns a well-known drug rehab center called Reynolds Rehabilitation Ranch. Billy sees a TV news report that Reynolds Rehabilitation Ranch has received a large of amount of funding from a recent deal with El Paso General Hospital.

Through an Internet search, Billy finds out that several years ago, Reynolds was acquitted on marijuana drug smuggling charges. Billy also discovers that Reynolds has ties to a major drug cartel. And in a silly movie like “Death in Texas,” Billy decides that Reynolds will be a perfect person to rob. Never mind that Reynolds has a small squad of violent thugs who are his bodyguards and enforcers.

Meanwhile, Grace has ended up at El Paso General Hospital because her liver condition has gotten worse. One day, while she’s in her hospital room, she’s feeling so sick that she vomits on the floor. A hospital orderly comes into her room to check on her and clean up the mess. And that’s how she meets hospital orderly John Scofield (played by Stephen Lang)—their “meet cute” moment happens when he has to clean up her vomit.

Grace jokes to John that it’s “love at first sight.” He continues the flirtation, and there are romantic sparks between them. You know where this is going, of course. Just when Grace is dying, she meets someone who could be the love of her life. It’s not stated if John is divorced or widowed, but he’s definitely an available bachelor. Billy eventually meets John, and it leads to a very tacky soap opera moment that’s part of a big, heavy-handed plot twist in the movie.

Amid all the bloody carnage in the story, Billy meets a possible love interest too. Her name is Jennifer (played by Cheryl “Cher” Cosenza), who’s a street-smart bartender with a heart of gold. Tyler is also interested in her, but Jennifer thinks Tyler is a disgusting creep. Billy doesn’t have enough money to buy a liver on the black market, but he has enough money to become a regular customer at the bar where Jennifer works.

One of the worst things about “Death in Texas” is the movie’s pathetic depiction of law enforcement. Billy’s parole officer is Sarah Jensen, the same person who barged in his parole hearing to show a mystery file to the parole board. The information in that file is eventually revealed in the movie, but it’s definitely not surprising, considering what happens later in the story. The information in the file wouldn’t be enough in real life for a parole board to suddenly switch its decision to not parole someone.

Sarah’s first meeting with Billy after his release happens when she shows up at Grace’s house announced to interview Billy. Billy is outside, hosing down his car, because it has blood on it from a murder that he committed the night before. But this dimwitted parole officer doesn’t even notice the blood on the car when she’s talking to Billy. And throughout the story, she keeps showing up unannounced at the house, as if parole officers never make office appointments.

Even more incompetent is a homicide detective named John Wayne Asher (played by John Ashton), who is the lead investigator in the murders that Billy commits during his crime spree. Billy makes no attempt to cover his tracks, because he easily leaves his DNA and fingerprints all over his crime scenes. As a convicted felon, Billy would have his fingerprints on record and his DNA would be in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), which is a nationwide DNA database for convicted offenders. And yet, the dumb cops in this movie have a hard time finding out that Billy committed these crimes.

In additon to its idiotic portrayal of how law enforcement works, “Death in Texas” also bungles depictions of how hospitals work and what certain hospital employees would be able to do while on duty. There’s a big plot development revolving around the liver transplant part of the story that will make people groan or laugh at the stupidity of how this plot twist is handled. There’s almost nothing realistic about “Death in Texas,” except for a few conversations in the blossoming romance between Grace and John.

All of the acting in this movie veers between hokey and robotic. It’s as if no one was giving the cast members any consistent direction. And if they were given any competent direction, they certainly weren’t paying attention. Not that better acting would’ve saved this terrible movie, because “Death in Texas” was dead on arrival with its horrendously awful screenplay.

Vertical Entertainment released “Death in Texas” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 4, 2021.

Review: ‘The Artist’s Wife,’ starring Lena Olin, Bruce Dern, Juliet Rylance, Avan Jogia and Stefanie Powers

September 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Bruce Dern and Lena Olin in “The Artist’s Wife” (Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing)

“The Artist’s Wife”

Directed by Tom Dolby

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York state in the cities of East Hampton and New York, the dramatic film “The Artist’s Wife” has a nearly all-white cast (with a few African Americans and one Indian American) representing the middle-class and upper-middle class.

Culture Clash: A woman who is married to a famous artist has problems dealing with his dementia, and she regrets abandoning her own artistic career to cater to her husband.

Culture Audience: “The Artist’s Wife” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching dramas about privileged people who find out that money and fame can’t make them immune from certain problems.

Lena Olin in “The Artist’s Wife” (Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing)

The dramatic film “The Artist’s Wife” takes an often frustratingly uneven look at a mid-life crisis of a woman coming to terms with some of the decisions that she’s made in her life. On the one hand, the movie is mostly well-acted and has some scenes that are heartfelt and genuine. On the other hand, “The Artist’s Wife” writer/director Tom Dolby makes some inconsistent choices in tone and editing that lower the quality of the movie. Ultimately, the movie’s occasional lack of cohesion is superseded by the good (but not great) performances by lead actors Lena Olin and Bruce Dern.

“The Artist’s Wife” will no doubt annoy people with feminist sensibilities because it’s about a submissive woman who spends most of the story coddling, enabling and making excuses for her awful husband. However, as uncomfortable as this movie might make some people feel about this very unequal partnership, the reality is that a lot of people have a relationship that’s just like the dysfunctional marriage of Richard and Claire Smythson, the fictional couple at the center of the movie. People’s lives can be messy and complicated, and they don’t always make the right decisions.

In the beginning of the film, Richard (played by Dern) and Claire (played by Olin) are being interviewed on TV while they sit on a couch together. Richard is a very famous artist who hasn’t shown a completed new painting in years, so he’s been coasting on his legacy. During the interview, Richard says as Claire looks lovingly at him: “I create the art. She creates the rest of our life. Everything we do is up to Claire.”

This interview might paint a rosy picture of Claire being a strong leader, but the reality is that Claire is not the one in charge in this marriage. She spends most of the movie doing whatever it takes to please Richard, who is demanding, stubborn, self-centered and extremely rude to everyone around him. Claire abandoned her own promising career as an artist to become a full-time homemaker.

It’s a decision that both Claire and Richard seemed happy with, as they’ve led a charmed and privileged life in East Hampton, New York. But then, Claire gets some bad news that turns her comfortable life upside down: Richard has been diagnosed with dementia. Claire knew that Richard was being more forgetful lately, but she assumed it was because of the natural aging process and because he’s been drinking more alcohol. However, it’s clear as the movie goes on that Richard’s terrible personality was a problem, even before he got dementia.

After Claire gets over the shock and denial about Richard’s dementia, she goes into “I’m going to fix this” mode, even though she’s been told by medical professionals that there’s no cure for dementia. One of the first things that Claire does is call Richard’s estranged daughter Angela (Richard’s only child) to tell her the news. Angela’s reaction is emotionally distant, as she tells Claire: “I didn’t want your money five years ago, and I don’t want it now.” Angela says, almost as an afterthought, “I’m sorry about Richard.”

It’s during this phone call that Claire finds out that Angela has a son whom Claire and Richard have never met. The son, who is 6 years old, can be heard in the background during the phone call. It’s clear that Angela doesn’t really want to talk to Claire for long, because Angela is abrupt and dismissive during their brief phone conversation.

The movie doesn’t go into details over what happened to Angela’s mother (who is not seen or mentioned in the film), but it’s implied that Angela’s parents probably got divorced when Angela was very young. It’s unclear whether or not Claire was the reason for the divorce, but Claire and Richard weren’t the ones who primarily raised Angela.

Richard has not had a good relationship with Angela for years. Angela comments to Claire about Richard: “He’s never really known me.” Later in the movie, Angela makes a snide offhand remark to Claire about Richard being good at disappointing people.

One day, Claire takes it upon herself to go unannounced to Angela’s apartment in New York City, to see if Angela wants to discuss reconciling with Richard. Claire also wants Richard to get to know his grandson before Richard dies. Claire’s unannounced visit goes as badly as you might expect it would.

Claire’s closest confidant is Richard’s art agent Liza Caldwell (played by Tonya Pinkins), who has resigned herself to thinking that Richard isn’t going to show any of his new paintings anytime soon. During a dinner videoconference call that Richard and Claire have with Liza, he refuses to show Liza a new painting he says he’s working on because his policy is that he and Claire are the only two people who get to see any of his unfinished paintings.

Even though Richard is not making any money from his unfinished paintings, apparently he has enough money to afford a $94,000 clock that’s the size of a cuckoo clock. Claire finds out that Richard made this purchase when the clock arrives in the mail and she opens the package and sees the total cost. She mildly scolds Richard, who angrily responds that he did nothing wrong because he wanted that clock. Claire then mutters to herself that she’s going to return the clock and get a refund.

To take her mind off of Richard’s grim medical diagnosis, Claire spends a night out in New York City with Liza at a gallery opening. Claire ends up getting drunk and misses the bus that would take her back to East Hampton. And so, Claire decides to make another unannounced visit to Angela’s apartment.

Claire asks Angela if she could stay over at Angela’s place. Claire says that she doesn’t want to take a taxi or rideshare drive back to East Hampton because she doesn’t want to be stuck in a long car ride with a stranger. Angela immediately says no, but then she reluctantly agrees to let Claire spend the night at her apartment. Angela also astutely tells Claire that Claire probably subconsciously wanted to get drunk and miss the last bus to East Hampton so Claire could use it as an excuse to come over to Angela’s place.

The next morning, Angela is introduced to Claire’s bright and adorable son Diego, nicknamed Gogo (played by Ravi Cabot-Conyers), and his caregiver Danny (played by Avan Jogia), who is an aspiring musician in his 20s. Angela is a lesbian who is going through a difficult divorce from her estranged wife (who is not seen in the movie), who is Gogo’s other parent.

Angela tells a sympathetic Claire that her estranged wife ended the relationship and moved in with a female fitness instructor eight days after leaving Angela. In other words, Angela is not in an emotionally good place in her life right now. But is Angela willing to mend her relationship with her father Richard and for Richard to get to know his grandson? That question is answered in the movie.

Meanwhile, it’s easy to see why Angela is reluctant to be in Richard’s life: He’s an emotionally abusive bully. Richard teaches an art class at a university, where he berates his young students about what he thinks it means to be a true artist. It’s horrendous behavior that he’s been getting away with for years because of his status as a famous artist.

During one of these sessions, he asks a female student what she paints with, and she gives a puzzled look before answering, “My brush?” That’s the wrong answer for Richard, who responds by pointing to a male student and says that the male student “paints with his cock. You paint with your cunt.”

Before the shocked and embarrassed female student can say anything, Richard sneers, “Maybe I should’ve taken a sensitivity training class before I came in today.” He tells the female student, in case she’s thinking about quitting on the spot: “The minute you go out that door, you’re telling me and everyone else in the class that you don’t have it. It’s not a painting unless you leave a piece of yourself on the canvas.” Rather than walking out of the class, the female student stays, probably out of fear.

In other class session, Richard asks a male student to explain the inspiration and meaning for one of the student’s paintings that has been completed and is sitting on an easel. The nervous and tongue-tied student can’t really answer the question, so Richard takes the painting and destroys it by smashing it on top of an easel. The shocked student is crushed by this humiliating act.

Claire is shown in the movie having a meeting with a school administrator, who tells Claire that the school had no choice but to fire Richard because of all the complaints that he was getting over the years. Claire’s reaction is to get angry and tell the administrator that Richard is just temperamental because that’s just part of his creative process and that the school should feel lucky to have Richard teaching there. The administrator takes out her phone and shows Claire a video of the incident where Richard destroyed the student’s painting. Claire just clucks her mouth and looks away, as if she doesn’t want to believe that Richard is that bad.

As Claire leaves the building in a huff, she removes one of Richard’s donated paintings that was on display in the building’s lobby. When a school employee tries to stop Claire from taking the painting, which was given as a gift to the school, Claire haughtily replies that the school was happy to use Richard’s name to attract students, and she thinks she has a right to take back the painting since Richard doesn’t work there anymore.

This scene is problematic but entirely consistent with Claire’s enabler attitude about the troublesome way that Richard mistreats other people. Claire doesn’t just stand by and do nothing; she vehemently defends Richard, despite knowing how much he hurts other people. There are plenty of real-life examples of people who are married to famous and powerful abusers, but they stay in marriages like this because they don’t want to give up access to power, which usually involves money and massive egos.

At home, Richard is an emotionally unavailable husband who is prone to unprovoked temper tantrums. And he’s far from a passionate lover. There’s a sex scene in the movie between Richard and Claire where he has some performance problems that Claire is understanding about and seems to be used to experiencing.

Earlier in the film, Claire asks her housekeeper Joyce (played by Catherine Curtin) why Joyce left her husband Bill and got divorced. Joyce replies, “I guess you could say we left each other … I didn’t know until Bill moved out how unhappy I’d been.” This conversation is an indication that Claire has also contemplated leaving Richard and divorcing him.

Although “The Artist’s Wife” has some realistic dialogue and acting, where the movie falters is in some of the hokey and predictable scenarios that are in the story. (Dolby wrote the movie’s screenplay with Nicole Brending and Abdi Nazemian.) In one scene, Claire is in her kitchen and squeezing a pomegranate to make some juice. She’s wearing a white T-shirt, and some of the pomegranate juice gets on the shirt. She then crushes the rest of the pomegranate so more juice can be spilled on her, as if her shirt is an art canvas.

It’s at this point you know that Claire’s desire to become a painter again is somehow “awakened.” And sure enough, Claire suddenly starts to paint as if her life depended on it. (Just like Richard, she does abstract art.) She buys art supplies and uses a barn-like shed on her property as her secret studio. Despite this reignited urge to paint again, she’s still afraid of what Richard will think.

Another motivation for Claire starting to create art again is when she visits an old friend she hasn’t seen in about 10 years: an avant-garde European artist named Ada Risi (played by Stefanie Powers), who just happens to have a retrospective exhibit in New York City. Claire goes to the exhibit, which has a lot of modern and futuristic pieces, and admires the art displays, probably with a little bit of envy. At the exhibit space, Claire has a friendly reunion with Ada, who definitely is an uninhibited free spirit, because during Claire’s visit, Ada does a photo session fully nude with other naked people.

There’s also a subplot about how Claire tries to get to know Angela and Gogo better, which means that Claire is also spending more time with Danny. When Claire and Danny first met, she assumed that he was gay, just like Angela. But he cheerfully corrected her and told her that he’s straight. You can easily predict the scenario that eventually happens between Claire and Danny.

“The Artist’s Wife” tries very hard to make it look like Claire is having some kind of feminist awakening in the last third of the movie. But it’s a false impression because she makes choices that all come back to how she feels in relation to her suffocating marriage to Richard, instead of how she feels as an individual. And she never really confronts Richard and holds him accountable for how he’s mistreated her and other people. Throughout the story, Claire goes out of her way to please Richard instead of being honest with him over how she really feels.

The movie also has a very “straight male gaze” to it, because only Olin is shown in a state of undress in the bedroom scenes. There’s a scene where Olin is standing around in a lacy bikini lingerie, as the camera lingers on her toned body. And the full-frontal nude scene with Powers also makes sure to highlight her physically fit body.

There’s almost a self-congratulatory way that director Dolby frames these fully nude and partially nude scenes with the women, as if to say, “See, I’m showing that women over the age of 60 can be sexy.” But it’s not exactly feminist when the male characters aren’t filmed in the same way. Jogia, who plays Danny, is a very good-looking man, and Danny might or might not end up being a “boy toy” for Claire. And yet, Jogia isn’t even seen with his shirt off in the movie.

There are so many things in the movie that are reminders that although the movie is called “The Artist’s Wife,” the women are written as hovering entities in Richard’s orbit. The character of Angela remains an enigma and could have been written better. The whole purpose of having Angela in the story is so that Richard can get a chance to redeem himself.

During many parts of the movie, Claire is almost like a supporting character, because she spends so much time focused on Richard’s wants and needs and cleaning up his messes. And she literally cleans up after him in more than one scene, such as when he smashes a bowl full of cereal on the kitchen floor, or when Claire comes home to find out that Richard has destroyed all of the furniture in the living room.

It’s questionable if “The Artist’s Wife” is really more concerned about the wife’s self-esteem or the husband’s redemption. The movie wants to give safe and predictable answers, by showing some trite scenarios that don’t always ring true. The most emotional authenticity in the movie comes from how Dern and Olin bring their characters to life in depicting a marriage that is a lot unhealthier than the spouses would like to admit.

Strand Releasing released “The Artist’s Wife” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on September 25, 2020.