Iranian expatriate cineaste Amir Naderi returns to the desert in “Vegas: Based on a True Story,” a film of such single-minded desolation that it recalls Victor Seastrom’s account of elemental madness, “The Wind,” as a destructive force rips through a family in precarious remission from full-blown addiction. Naderi’s stated goal, to wed his more experimental recent work to a strong narrative throughline, has been realized with a vengeance. Given its cast of total unknowns, “Vegas” is unlikely to arouse much theatrical interest, though, like Naderi’s “Marathon,” pic may thrive on cable.
Situated on the scruffy outskirts of Las Vegas (the neon city itself only visible on the horizon), Tracy (Nancy La Scala) has constructed a home, complete with a carefully tended backyard, a floral centerpiece and a greenhouse where she grows tomatoes. She and hubby Eddie (Mark Greenfield) are recovering gambling addicts, avoiding cigarettes, beer and other triggers that nudge them toward the abyss. Tracy’s careful gardening and housekeeping rituals keep her from backsliding, while Eddie covertly sinks deeper into smokes, booze and one-armed bandits than he will admit.
Their bright, motivated teen son, Mitch (Zach Thomas), hangs out at the family’s old trailer doing homework when not pedaling around on his bike. The three seem hedged in domesticity, perilously perched on the brink of disaster. The push comes in the form of a young soldier-cum-con artist who reels them in slowly with yarns ranging from a sentimental sob story to dubious “proof” of the existence of buried treasure.
Soon they’re digging holes on their property in search of the legendary fruits of a long-ago casino heist. As their compulsive personalities kick in, the ravages of addiction are vividly reflected by the erosion of their house’s very foundation.
Naderi’s flair for depicting addiction, and his uncanny ability to weave that addiction through very specific topographies, amount to a highly poetic formalism. “Marathon” criss-crossed the black-and-white grid of the Manhattan subway system with its heroine’s race to complete 77 crossword puzzles in 24 hours, while the deaf kid in “Sound Barrier” plowed through thousands of audio tapes, alongside the noisiest industrial bridge in the Bronx, to hear his mother’s last words. Never merely “realistic,” Naderi’s characters’ driving obsessions traverse cinematic synapses on America’s psychological landscape.