Deputy Sheriff Ray Dolezal (Willem Dafoe), a dilligent lawman in a small southwestern town, discovers a dead body in the desert along with a briefcase with $500,000 in cash. Faced with the biggest case of his life, Ray leaves his wife and son and sets out to impersonate the dead man in a bid to solve this mystery. But he ends up out of his depth, entangled with maniacal arms dealer Gorman Lennox (Mickey Rourke), a manipulative FBI agent (Samuel L. Jackson) and thrill-seeking heiress Lane Bodine (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who is irresistibly drawn to lost causes and dangerous men.
Few things are as frustrating as a film with a promising premise that just does not deliver. Such is the case with White Sands, a noir-ish thriller that starts well but despite solid performances and a decent script strangely lacks the stamina to make good on its potential. Like several other neo-noir efforts from the early Nineties, e.g. Red Rock West (1992), One False Move (1993), the film adopts the western desert as a visual metaphor for the existential void, a vast moral emptiness in which protagonists are free to write their own rules of what is right and wrong as their choices (invariably bad) determine their fate. Ray adopts an alter-ego ostensibly to crack the case but on some level also to experience the danger and excitement unavailable to him in his normal role as dependable deputy and family man.
Scripter Daniel Pyne, a veteran of seminal cop show Miami Vice, dealt with similar themes in his underrated buddy cop comedy The Hard Way (1991). Pyne cleverly positions Lane as Ray’s female counterpart but although Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio shines in an atypical role, Willem Dafoe is exceptional and the development of the sexual tension in their unfolding relationship proves compelling, the film gets so bogged down in the elaborate mechanics of the plot it fails to develop its themes. Australian filmmaker Roger Donaldson has made very fine films including classic twist-laden Kevin Costner thriller No Way Out (1987), Cuban missile crisis drama Thirteen Days (2000) and rousing feel-good true story The World’s Fastest Indian (2005) but also some notorious clunkers like Cocktail (1988), Species (1995) and The Recruit (2002). White Sands falls somewhere between those two stools. Despite pedestrian pacing the plot twists prove intriguing until the third act springs an outlandish revelation that neither convinces nor makes much sense, derailing a hitherto solid story that fizzles out with a limp climax.
On a more positive note, the film looks great with the cinematography of Peter Menzies Jr. casting an apt aura of mystery over the titular shimmering sands plus the score by Patrick O’Hearn stays evocative while low-key. It also features a particularly funny fake sex scene. Aside from early roles for Samuel L. Jackson and Maura Tierney, blink and you’ll miss Mimi Rogers as Ray’s wife (a role surely reduced during post-production), there are uncredited turns from John P. Ryan and Fred Dalton Thompson as arms dealers and the great M. Emmet Walsh, a neo-noir staple since Blood Simple (1983) plays Ray’s trusted coroner. Interestingly, at this point in their careers the two male leads could have played either role though this proved among the last good ones for Rourke before his decade long decline. He plays an oddly relaxed, almost Zen like villain prone to conversational tangents and philosophising. Offbeat but not all that menacing.