The “flashback” narrative has become quite popular. A film opens with a scene in which things are bad, desperate or cliff-hangery and then a title card shoots the audience into the past to show us how things got to be so dire. At one time, it was an innovative way to tell a story. But these days, many directors use it just to be cool. They don’t even think about whether or not it’s a fitting way to tell their story. Is Steve Buscemi’s “Saint John” really at his wits end when he enters a Las Vegas gas station and decides to buy $1000 in instant lottery tickets? Sure, his face is pretty worse-for-wear, but, once we learn more about his character, it’s evident that this behavior is not at all out of the ordinary for him. A wide variety of events in his past could have brought him to this same scenario. Besides, $1000 may be a lot of money for a workingman, but blowing it isn’t a life-or-death situation by any means. With the temporal-shift title card, you know director Hue Rhodes is going to work his way back to this pretty ho-hum scene. It kind of renders the whole movie hollow before it even kicks off.
A voiceover tells us that John used to be lucky. And then one day, his luck ran out and he lost everything, thus, ending with a depressing career at an Albuquerque-based auto insurance company. His only thrills are his daily lotto ticket habit and leering at his happy-face obsessed cubical mate (Sarah Silverman). Maybe it’s Buscemi’s performance, but watching the current incarnation of Saint John makes the idea that he used to live a life of glitz and glamour in Vegas pretty hard to swallow. Maybe he did. Or maybe he just prefers to remember things that way.
When John petitions his egomaniacal boss (Peter Dinklage) for a raise, he instead gets assigned to a new department. A co-worker by the name of Virgil (Romany Malco) runs the fraud division and needs a partner to help him investigate a suspicious accident in the desert. John is hesitant at first because a) there’s no promise of increased pay and b) the assignment is dangerously close to Las Vegas, a city that he believes will send him back into his gambling dark place. But eventually John concedes because he wants to impress the boss and his cube-mate crush. So off he goes with a quiet, stern, dick of a mentor toward a city he fears to clinch a job he isn’t sure he even wants.
The film is based on a short story, and it seems likely that it worked much better in that format. Maybe the references to “Dante’s Inferno” would have seemed more fleshed out, and not just a way to name-check classic literature. Sure, there’s the Vegas-as-hell comparison, but not only is it cliché, it doesn’t even seem accurate in terms of our protagonist. All of John’s pain is self-inflicted and one gets the impression that he could ruin his life just as easily in any city. The man would find a way to gamble in a monastery.
And then there’s the quirk. Along the way, John and Virgil encounter a number of wacky characters that read like ideas scrawled onto a diner napkin at three in the morning: wheelchair lap dance, nudist rednecks, kinky co-worker with happy-face obsession, carnie geek stuck in faulty pyrotechnics suit. It would be much easier to accept these characters in short paragraphs. Spending a whole vignette with them is too much.
It’s hard to say what, if anything, could have saved this movie. The talented cast does all they can with the weak material. The desert is inherently a vast wasteland; one that we’ve seen in a million other movies, so the cinematography isn’t enough either. Despite an attempt at a twist, the whole story just peters out. The ending is neither happy nor sad. It’s just a man getting on with his life. Even with the presence of wheelchair-bound strippers, it’s a little too hyper-realistic to be interesting.