MOVIE REVIEW : ‘White Sands’: Looks Great, Not Fulfilling


Movie thrillers should thrill, but shouldn’t they also make sense? “White Sands” (citywide) has a snazzy, wide-screen look and a gallery of spiky, offbeat characters. What it lacks is storytelling smarts. It’s incoherent in the manner of all those movies that seem patched together from the oddments of test-market surveys and front-office whimsies.

It’s possible to enjoy “White Sands” (rated R for violence, language and sensuality) from moment to moment because the actors are avid and the New Mexico locations are delicately beautiful. Still, there’s something disconcerting about this anything-for-effect style of filmmaking. It doesn’t add up to anything satisfying.

Willem Dafoe plays Ray Dolezal, a New Mexico sheriff investigating the death of an Indian found in the middle of nowhere with $500,000 in cash. What this means is that we are soon treated to a scene in which the coroner (M. Emmet Walsh), acting on the sheriff’s hunch, performs an autopsy on the dead man’s stomach; its contents are picked out with tweezers, bit by undigested bit.

After an early sequence like this, where do you go? Apparently nowhere. What follows is mostly standard-issue thrills, except that the actors keep doodling in the margins of the action; they’re trying to have some fun with their seen-it-all-before characterizations.


When Ray decides to impersonate the dead man and keeps a rendezvous in Sante Fe, he hooks up with a shady operator (Mickey Rourke) and a spoiled heiress (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Despite the Georgia O’Keeffe-style vistas and the rodeos and 10-gallon hats, the set-pieces are mostly derived from ‘40s noir thrillers.

It’s a freaky good idea to mix film noir and the Western but director Roger Donaldson and screenwriter Daniel Pyne don’t really explore the possibilities. They seem more interested in making a fashion statement than a dramatic statement. (It doesn’t help that a lot of the swooping camera work in the desert vista scenes is reminiscent of those highfalutin car commercials on television.)

Rourke has gone in for a lot of self-indulgent monkeyshines in his recent movies. His idea of being cooled-out is to purse his lips and mumble enigmatically. But he’s still a major actor when he wants to be, and in “White Sands,” despite the nothingness of his role, he gives the film a creepy, knowing undertone. As Gorman Lennox, Rourke is so smooth that he doesn’t seem to have any edges at all, and yet he has a trigger-quick volatility that lets you know he hasn’t been smoothed out by the soft life. He’s been buffed by hard knocks. Lennox always seems to be suppressing some nasty, dirty in-joke. His smirk is a form of caress.

Dafoe plays a decent Westerner with old-fashioned values--not ideal casting for someone with a death’s-head glower and hyper-wicked eyebrows. Dafoe picked the wrong role to go straight; if he had brought out Ray’s submerged criminal instincts, he and Rourke might have been one wild match.


It’s possible that the people who made “White Sands” had in mind something screwier and funnier than what they ended up with. But the film suffers from compromise-itis. For Donaldson, this is nothing new. His “Smash Palace” and “The Bounty” are major works, but he’s also responsible for “Cocktail.”

An Australian who began his filmmaking career in New Zealand, Donaldson is caught in the same bind that so many Hollywood directors, home-grown and transplants alike, are facing these days. He has the skills to turn out effective thrillers--he also directed “No Way Out"--but he also has a lot more to give. The question is: Are there any takers?

‘White Sands’

Willem Dafoe: Ray Dolezal


Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio: Lae Bodine

Mickey Rourke: Gorman Lennox

Samuel L. Jackson: Greg Meeker

A Warner Bros. release of a James G. Robinson presentation of a Morgan Creek production. Director Roger Donaldson. Producers William Sackheim, Scott Rudin. Executive producers Robinson, David Nicksay, Gary Barber. Screenplay Daniel Pyne. Cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr. Editor Nicholas Beauman. Costumes Deborah Everton. Music Patrick O’Hearn. Production design John Graysmark. Art director Michael Rizzo. Set decorator Michael Seirton. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.


MPAA-rated R (violence, language, sensuality).