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Introducing his film Vegas: Based on a True Story, director Amir Naderi dedicated the film to New Iranian Cinema, the movement in his home country exemplified by directors like Abbas Kiarostami. The neo-realist style, full of long takes and minimal plots and non-actors, has made its way in fits and starts to these shores, but Vegas might be the American film that draws the most from that Middle Eastern style-- and not just because it's shot in the desert.
Essentially an allegory about American greed as personified both by treasure-hunting myths and the Las Vegas trip, Vegas might have worked just as well as a short. Sure, the feature running time allows more subtlety and character development to work its way in, but at the same time, the central metaphor feels as tired and destroyed as the house that falls victim to its owners' greed.
Like I said, the story is simple. A working-class family living on the outskirts of Vegas comes in contact with a young man who used to live in their house, and who tells them that a famous haul from a casino heist-- believed to be lost for decades-- may be buried in their backyard. Dad (Mark Greenfield) and son (Zach Thomas) are eager to give it a shot, but Mom (Nancy La Scala) has always tended carefully to the yard as a fairly clear symbol of her upward mobility, and isn't eager to start digging holes. But the temptations of easy money eventually work their powers on her as well, and before too long the carefully tended grass has turned into a series of dusty ditches, none of them turning up the promised treasure.
The story might have held together a little better had we known much about the central family, but all we're given is a shrewish, complaining wife, a husband who drinks himself into oblivion, and a kid who is left to essentially raise himself. Many of the Iranian New Wave films have featured stellar child performances, and while Thomas is really the best part of the film, not enough time is given to Mitch's sudden coming of age. Instead there are countless shots of the Vegas skyline from a distance, hammering home how far these people are from the promised riches.
Despite its weaknesses, though, Vegas is a powerful story, and surprisingly realistic given the extreme circumstances in which these characters end up. Naderi may overstate the central metaphor, but it's a potent one, and his fine grasp of visual style makes the point through striking visual juxtapositions. A trimmed down version of Vegas might really be a thing of wonder, but as it is, it's an interesting thought experiment with mixed results.