Dir: Amir Naderi. US. 2008. 102mins.

Vegas: Based on a True Story feels like Vegas: A Shooting Experiment. Iranian director Amir Naderi - living in the US for the last 20 years - has wrapped an interesting story in a drab,DV format, framed mostly in long and medium-shots. He does his actors no favours, although there are good performances here. Once - and if - the viewer gets past the film’s deliberately ugly feel, there’s a pretty powerful story in Vegas that has resonance on several levels.

It will be interesting to see how Vegas plays out commercially; it feels very American in its themes and the experimental at-a-distance shooting style may draw it a lot of attention on the US indie circuit and Independent Spirit-style awards network. Internationally viewers tend to prefer their art house to look more arty and outside some urban centres it could struggle. Ancillary also carries a question mark and will depend greatly on the reviews and word-of-mouth this attracts. This is a film will undoubtedly have -and deserves -a life; the question is where’

With the skyline of Sin City constantly looming as a dark presence in the background, Vegas charts the Parker family as they go about their day-to-day existence as blue collar workers in the city. Father Eddie (Greenfield) works in a garage. Tracy (de la Scala) is a waitress. Their son, 12-year-old Mitch (Thomas), attends local school. From the outset, it’s evident that gambling has been a big player in their lives and their grip on their home and domestic life is tenuous and, in the case of Tracy, tinged with desperation.

She compulsively waters their lawn, a solitary green patch in the encroaching desert, obsessively grows tomatoes and keeps the house spotlessly clean. Eddie, meanwhile, is a desperate gambler who can barely keep a lid on his impulses and lies about the time and money he spends on the slot machines. It’s also clear that this is small stuff compared to undescribed events in their past lives. They have moved from a caravan into a trailer-style home. But they’re not far from the edge.

Into this set-up comes the mysterious figure of Brian, supposedly a marine and Iraq veteran, who offers them a large amount of money for their house. Tracy refuses. He then talks about the Sands Hotel heist of 1965, claiming the $1m loot is buried in their garden. To the eerie sound of tinkling wind chimes, this stranger kicks off the family’s ticking obsessions, with Mitch a pitiably brave observer on the sidelines. Can they withstand this pressure’

This is clearly not shot as a happy film as the drably sombre opening five minutes make obvious. There are strong turns here from all three principals - especially Thomas as Mitch - but the problem, particularly in the case of La Scala as Tracy, is that you can’t really see them. And there is some awful, stilted dialogue outside the family unit which are straight out of amateur dramatics.

Vegas does labour its point - perhaps too much for some tastes - but its portrait of a family’s tenuous control of their obsessions is particularly clear-cut and compelling. The character of Las Vegas itself plays a huge part and the ‘true story’ element of the title seems to be more about the city than this family, hanging on by their fingernails against the twin threats of the ravenous city and the hungry desert. Shot on probably a fraction of the budget of even one of the Vegas crime shows which are currently so hot, Vegas: A True Story is still enough to alter your perspective of the city forever.

Production company
Alphaville Films NYC Inc

International sales
Cinetic Media
(1) 212 204 7980

Amir Naderi
Abou Farman

Amir Naderi
Susan Brennan
Bliss Esposito
Charlie Lake Keaton

Chris Edwards

Production design
Amir Naderi

Amir Naderi

Main cast
Mark Greenfield
Nancy La Scala
Zach Thomas
Walt Turner
Alexis Hart