David Moscow’s directorial debut, Desolation (not to be confused with Sam Patton’s 2017 feature-length debut of the same name), is not your typical tale of a small-town girl who falls for the handsome actor. Desolation tells the story of Katie (Dominik Garcia-Lorido), a sexual assault survivor coping with her trauma and subsequent suicide attempt. While working at a motel in Elmira, New York, she meets Jay (Brock Kelly), an aspiring big-time actor. The two hit it off and, before she knows it, Jay asks Katie to come back to Los Angeles with him for a few days. Unfortunately, as soon as they arrive, Jay is offered a role in a film and he has to leave for three days. Katie protests, but Jay eventually convinces her it’s not a big deal and that she should stay and hang out while he’s gone.
Things go downhill fast for Katie once her boyfriend leaves. She is suddenly seeing ghosts and having visions other people can’t see. The apartment is broken into and vandalized and the police don’t take her seriously. Katie evens finds cameras hidden all around the apartment and the building. She has to figure out who – or what – is after her before she loses her mind, if it isn’t already too late.
The film, penned by Craig D. Walendziak, has several layers to it, which is completely unexpected given its generic tagline, “Hollywood is to DIE for.” In fact, besides Jay’s job as an actor, Hollywood doesn’t really have anything to do with the plot. No one else in the film is, or is aspiring to be, a part of the film industry. At its core, the film is about a woman who must rely on no one but herself for survival when all odds are against her. Surprisingly, the film also appears to be a commentary on the plight of sexual assault survivors within society’s “rape culture”.
Katie is an abuse survivor at the start of the film, but throughout Desolation she is subject to several other violations of her body and mind. A man on the street accosts her for a photo when he mistakes her for a porn star, she is forced to socialize with one of Jay’s friends who keeps cracking “harmless” rape jokes, and she is later assaulted by a police officer. Even seemingly trivial moments are manipulative and abusive, like when she begs Jay not to leave her alone and says she doesn’t want to stay without him. Instead of understanding her feelings, Jay is frustrated and coerces her to do what he wants by saying he’ll have to assume they are just a fling if she doesn’t stay and wait for him to return. These moments are difficult to watch, maybe especially so for people more sensitive to the subject matter, and are painfully lifelike in how they’re handled. Katie is victim-blamed and gaslighted at every turn throughout the film, but somehow finds a way to remain strong and fight back- not in an I Spit On Your Grave way, but in a grounded, realistic manner.
Despite taking interesting and unexpected turns, as well as making timely social commentary, Desolation fails to live up to its full potential. This is, in part, because Garcia-Lorido’s acting is inconsistent throughout. There are moments when she is very natural, such as when she’s joking with her friend or hanging out with Jay. There are even moments towards the end of the film, such as a particular confrontation with a priest, wherein Garcia-Lorido’s performance is heart-wrenching. However, there are also several crucial moments where Katie should be panicking or terrified, but she is completely flat instead.
One such instance is when Katie discovers a computer monitor showing the footage from a camera in Jay’s building. On the monitor, she sees her best friend has come looking for her and is in serious danger. Rather than immediately running to help her friend, Katie stares at the screen for several moments, talk-yelling, “No, Debbie! No!” It comes off as cheesy and one-dimensional, which is unfortunate considering the scene should be emotional and tense.
Additionally, Desolation just goes too far off the rails towards the end. Much of the film has a Rosemary’s Baby or Repulsion vibe as we try to figure out if Katie is descending into madness or if there are actually supernatural forces at play against her. However, in the third act, the film tries to pull off too many ideas at once and subsequently waters down all of them. Desolation worked as a biting social commentary and as a “descent into madness” thriller, but it’s when a conspiracy theory is introduced too close to the end of the film that the story becomes convoluted. Rushing to include such an important plot point (and never giving any motivation for it) at the time when all loose ends should be tied together leaves viewers with really big questions and the urge to go over all the film’s previous events with a fine-toothed comb.
In all, Desolation is not a bad film, it’s simply middle-of-the-road. Respectably, the film has something to say and makes no bones about it. Although the acting is inconsistent, it’s ultimately the disjointed storyline which limits the film. Despite these facts and a lackluster execution, Desolation is one of the most of-the-moment horror films in recent memory and is certainly worth a watch.
Desolation opens theatrically in NYC and LA on January 26th via Parade Deck Films and will run on streaming platforms in April 2018, through Gravitas Ventures.