Told with an unfussy minimalism that doesn’t eclipse its metaphor’s somewhat creaky obviousness, Vegas: Based on a True Story presents a microcosm of American greed and addiction via a family living on the dusty outskirts of Sin City. Eddie (Mark Greenfield) and Tracy (Nancy La Scala) are recovering gambling junkies whose lives, along with 12-year-old son Mitch (Zach Thomas), are tenuously stable, with Eddie’s surreptitious plays on the slots—his face pressed close to the glittering screen—the only minor indiscretions in an otherwise routine working-class life. A visit from a Marine interested in buying their house leads to the revelation that a crime gang’s suitcase full of $1 million may be buried on their property, which Tracy has diligently nurtured from a rectangle of dry desert into a green grassy yard. Smelling wealth, Eddie begins digging, which in turn leads to ruin in a manner that, after an opening act that gently and authentically establishes the characters, steers things into an overtly symbolic realm. The family’s maniacal pursuit of a monetary pipe dream, and the destruction of their unity, security, and sanity, reverberates as a commentary on the country’s insatiable avarice, whether that be the kind that drives people to Vegas—whose twinkling nighttime skyline, frequently seen in the distance across a stretch of barren soil, functions as a kind of entrancing bug zapper—or to gamble their futures on the market or in real estate. The game is fixed, but we’re too blinded by gluttony to see it, warns Vegas. Director Amir Naderi, an Iranian who’s spent the past 20 years making quasi-experimental films in the States, employs a discreet aesthetic full of long takes and no score to reinforce his argument, never more beautifully than in a shot from the back of a pickup truck that pans from the Vegas strip, to the vehicle’s cabin, and then (after Eddie and Tracy have finished discussing their daily wagers and “recovery”) to the arid nowhereland on the opposite side of the highway. Yet despite such graceful directorial gestures, the film’s scenario unavoidably devolves into a treatise that, though timely, feels a tad too on the nose.
Vegas: Based on a True Story @ the Tribeca Film Festival
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.