After a fast, smart start, "White Sands" implodes like a black hole, sucking all goodwill from the atmosphere of the theater, turning those of us who started to love it into embittered cuckolds.
Great setup: Willem Dafoe, a deputy sheriff in New Mexico, comes across the body of a possible suicide in the desert. Besides a bullet in the head and a gun in the hand, the stiff is clutching (with the other hand) a suitcase loaded with $500,000 in small, dirty bills.
Everything in the early sequences is absolutely first rate. Dafoe is focused, tough, professional. The mystery is intriguing and his incisive steps to unravel it are original. M. Emmet Walsh, that great old character actor, has a nice turn as a cynical coroner, who only wants to scrape $20,000 or so off the top.
Dafoe manages to make contact with the dead man's business associates, and learns that they don't realize he's dead and had never seen him. So he decides to impersonate the victim to find out where the trail leads and if the death is suicide or murder. Wonderful conceit: the hick officer, obviously swollen with ambition, steps into a different world, where his wits are his only protection. He makes mistakes. He runs great risks. He's the total existential man, in a universe of complete conundrum, where a single wrong answer may get him killed. In fact, two wickedly vivid female thugs separate him from his money. But he's learning. And he's learning that he likes it.
Then the movie stops making sense. Was it written by David Byrne? It becomes one of those dreary, hopeless, largely incoherent narratives of bureaucratic intrigue, with so many different cliques maneuvering for leverage that it collapses into sheer abstraction. It's not a story; it's a painting by a third-rate clone of Jackson Pollock, gobs of color, flecks of light, weird but incomprehensible landscapes of raw paint spiraling across the canvas.
Dafoe tumbles to Mickey Rourke, pleasantly nasty as some kind of gun-runner, vaguely affiliated with liberal do-gooder and rich girl Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who wants to give the guns that Rourke is aiming to buy with the $500,000 to some oppressed peoples south of the border (no nationalities given). Meanwhile, two distinct teams of FBI agents are monitoring the situation, one of them good, one of them bad but the movie never makes convincingly clear which is which. A weird girl shows up and throws scenes, then disappears.
None of this works. The three most interesting characters -- Walsh and the two women thugs -- disappear altogether. Mastrantonio is completely wasted in what is purely a bimbo role, forced to bat her lashes at the two guys in a ritual of adoration, and just why she would fall in love with Dafoe remains an utter mystery that the director, Roger Donaldson, cannot begin to make clear. Rourke smirks and flirts and sleepily throws his weight about in ways that are as remote from knowledge as Marlon Brando's great whirl in "The Missouri Breaks," when, for reasons no one ever figured out, he suddenly started wearing a dress. On the other hand, if Rourke had suddenly appeared in a dress, it might have helped this movie.
Dafoe appears to learn nothing as he goes along; he can't find a texture or a complexity to his character. This actor has played some great villains in his time but now, with what appears to be a mouthful of new teeth, he's just a conventional, uninteresting leading man. And what we pine to see -- a final confrontation between the sleazy Rourke and his apparently willing acolyte Dafoe -- never happens. Instead, the movie winds up in a sloppy ambush sequence involving Sam Jackson, as one of the FBI agents. It's completely unsatisfying.
There's another theme that's genuinely disturbing. The movie's ugliest moment comes when somebody coldbloodedly executes two bound and gagged FBI agents in front of lawman Dafoe, who, though armed, can't quite bring himself to save their lives. That's bad enough; but the movie ends with the suggestion that though not directly guilty of the crime, Dafoe's character will nevertheless benefit from it. In any event, he's completely unmoved by it. It makes a bad movie seem even grimier than it had to be.
Starring Willem Dafoe and Mickey Rourke.
Directed by Roger Donaldson.
Released by Warner Bros.