‘A Desert’ Tribeca Review – Dusty Neo-Noir Collides with Unpredictable, Violent Horror


A road trip through the American Southwest opens a puzzle box of weirdness and nihilism in director Joshua Erkman’s feature debut, A Desert, through a captivating and stylized blend of neo-noir and horror. There’s no handholding or easy answers in this genre-bender, but its richly textured world and morally complex characters ensure an unpredictable voyage worth taking.

Photographer Alex Clark (Green Room’s Kai Lennox) embarks on a solo road trip to capture abandoned roadside structures and buildings in desolate stretches of Southwestern desert, hoping to reinvigorate his stalled career. Alex smartly approaches his solo trip with caution, with frequent calls home to his wife Sam (A Wounded Fawn’s Sarah Lind) on updates. That’s disrupted when he overhears alarming sounds coming from next door during his stay at a seedy motel. It leads to his chance meeting with the rowdy Renny (Zachary Ray Sherman) and the woman he introduces as his sister, Susie (Ashley B. Smith). The wild pair exhibit telltale signs of danger but with enough warmth and charisma to lower Alex’s guard, plunging him into an unpredictable nightmare.

Erkman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Bossi Baker, hangs this genre-bender on the familiar framework of neo-noir. Themes of isolation, alienation, and paranoia saturates the frame and its characters. It’s in the decayed landscapes captured with grainy photography and in Alex’s hushed, strained voicemails left for Sam that signals his stalled career has impacted far more than his wallet.

It’s also in the charismatic yet volatile Renny, whose hair-trigger paranoia makes him a wildcard that keeps Alex, and the viewer by proxy, on razor’s edge. Sherman gives an explosive performance with just enough vulnerability that makes it so easy to see why Alex’s curiosity overrides all obvious red flags. But it’s morally murky private detective Harold Palladino (Southbound and The Toxic Avengers David Yow) who threatens to steal the show. There’s a kindhearted but world-weary savviness to Harold that feels safe, like a life raft in rough waters, but his vices create doubt.

Doubt factors heavily into Erkman and Baker’s script, which refuses to follow a linear path. All bets are off after act one, with narrative turns that are impossible to see coming. It’s there where Erkman layers in the horror, subtle first, then shockingly dark and violent. In true neo-noir form, there’s a savage nihilism to A Desert that packs a punch. Even more so in the way, Erkman plays it close to the vest with the more dubious characters and their motivations.

A Desert reaches a fitting conclusion, thematically and tonally, but the steadfast refusal for tidy answers may polarize. Still, the refreshingly unpredictable journey and richly textured worldbuilding establish Erkman as a bold new voice, one that deftly blends genres with stunning precision. The debut filmmaker juxtaposes a landscape abandoned and eroded by time with larger-than-life characters, nearly all of them operating in shades of moral decay or corruption. It makes for a deeply engaging journey, one that continues to signal alarm bells from the moment Alex meets Renny right through its bleak final act.

A Desert made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Release TBD.

4 out of 5 skulls

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