There’s a dead body in the desert. In one of the corpse’s hands is a briefcase filled with half a million dollars in cash. In the other is a pistol.

Noir like White Sands works best when the material is at its simplest — body, money, gun. For awhile, director Roger Donaldson and screenwriter Daniel Pyne follow that age-old rule and keep it simple.

Willem Dafoe plays Ray Dolezal, a deputy sheriff in a small town in New Mexico. After investigating the scene of the crime, he’s not so convinced that the death is the result of suicide. To find out the truth, he calls a phone number found in the body (written on a scrap of paper undigested in the man’s stomach), pretends to be the victim, and winds up involved in a weapons deal with the mysterious Gorman Lennox (Mickey Rourke).

Most people only know the dead man by name — Bob Spencer — and the problems for Ray start when Lane (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a philanthropist with her own charitable foundation and a knack for finding shady business dealings that help her political causes, turns up. She knew the original Spencer but keeps quiet to Lennox about the shift. She cares that much about getting guns, mines, and grenades to the disenfranchised population of an unnamed foreign country for unspecified rationale.

Here is where things become overwhelming. After establishing Ray’s life on the job in scenes with the town’s mortician (M. Emmet Walsh), who never minces words (“You’re as persistent as a dog with two dicks”), and on the homefront in showing his wife son and wife (an uncredited Mimi Rogers), enter a series of FBI agents with competing agendas. Greg Meeker (Samuel L. Jackson) says the money was part of a sting operation to catch Lennox red-handed. Agent Flynn (James Rebhorn) says the money was stolen. Meanwhile, the real Spencer’s old girlfriend (Maura Tierney) is out and about, trying to find her man before something bad happens to him.

The characters and their conflicting motivations never get out of hand, but their carefree relationships in the face of betrayal and the movie’s nebulous political undertones do.

Lane becomes a love interest out of necessity, and it’s difficult bait to bite. She seems the quintessential femme fatale (whisking away the news of Spencer’s death, building up Ray’s ego as a naughty boy, tempting him in the shower) while having no harmful effects on the hero.

As a character, Lennox is too charitably enigmatic for his own good. He coerces Ray to buy paintings from a starving artist/waitress and later scolds him for tossing them in the garbage (“You don’t throw away someone’s dreams”), pays a bum a lump of change for cleaning his windshield, and plays fair when Ray na├»vely agrees to pay an additional quarter-million dollars to the arms dealers. There’s no perceivable, legitimate threat from Lennox (leaving the movie essentially antagonist-free before piling them on), and the truth of his real ties adds a too-heavy layer of conspiracy.

In spite of all its revelations and backstabs, nothing of consequence changes for the characters or plot. White Sands starts promising (especially as its supporting players appearing in succession) and becomes bogged down by the monotony of its story and ill-defined characterizations.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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