I’m not sure if Twentynine Palms is a foul tip or a home-run, but it connects. I went in cold and suggest you do the same. Spoilers follow.
Still here? Okay, the story follows David, an American photographer, and Katia, his Russian girlfriend. The pair head to the small Californian desert town of Twentynine Palms to scout locations. They room in a motel, have sex in the motel pool, share a single entrée at the local Asian diner, drive out to desert, have sex on some rocks, scratch the hell out of their Hummer H2, shop at the local supermarket, have sex in their motel room, eat ice cream, and walk around town.
I found it monotonous and inaccessible. He speaks no Russian, and she speaks no English, so they communicate in French, a language difficult for both, resulting in misunderstandings and constant bickering.
The film paints small town America as a backwoods environ, with malice lurking at the edges via the unforgiving desert and hostile locals. This foreign perspective further alienated me. The leads—even the American—make no effort to adapt to their environment. They expect the locals to accommodate their customs (sharing an entrée, walking everywhere) and emit a vague sense of condescension when they don’t.
But the third-act hit me like a baseball bat to the stomach.
All the vague malice coalesces in a sequence of such sudden, brutal violence it almost pulled me out of the film. The condescending tone whiplashes to abject horror as we see David’s body violated and his mind destroyed.
But what is he saying? Is it a cautionary tale about the dangers of hedonism? A biblical allegory to Adam and Eve being cast out of the garden? A takedown of American excess? Dumont has called it an “experimental horror,” and that fits. But was the experiment a success? Does the finale justify the hour and half investment? My gut says no, but another viewing may change my mind.