PAYDIRT Impresses With Style, But Otherwise Falls Short

This Luke Goss and Val Kilmer heist thriller doesn’t quite pay out.

Christian Sesma has been a fairly prolific creator of auteur-led low-budget action genre movies for a while now. His latest, Paydirt, is an ode to glossy heist films, but set against the background of his native Coachella Valley. The pitch of the film is promising, and it even boasts a fairly impressive cast, headed by Luke Goss and the always intriguing Val Kilmer, as well as a gang of Sesma’s old regulars including Paul Sloan and producer Matt Hatton. Unfortunately, the end result is a clash of stylish cinematography and breathtaking locales in service to a rather dull narrative.

The film opens with the set-up: five years ago, Sheriff Tucker (Kilmer) attempted a cartel drug bust that ended up leading to the death of several DEA agents and only the procurement of a relatively insignificant amount of weed. The real score, duffel bags stuffed with cartel drug money, seemingly vanished, with both the DEA and the cartel clueless where they could have gone. Damien Brooks (Goss) ends up being the fall guy, and does five years for the bust. Once he is released however, he arranges to meet with his old posse, declaring that he knows where the money was hidden.

The rest of their plot falls into place. The opening act deals with pulling the team together, collectively known by various alliterative B-names: the Brit, the Brains, the Brawn, et cetera, looking for their big score. The trouble is that Tucker, disgraced after the failed bust, is attempting to redeem himself by keeping close tabs on Brooks. Meanwhile, the cartel also learns that Brooks is out, and would very much like to know where their money is.

All of this set-up takes up about the first half of the film, where new key characters are being introduced and plot points are set up that will lead to the ultimate finale. Sesma cites being inspired by Soderberg’s Oceans movies, and the comparison is hard to miss. Beyond being the story of an ex-con getting the old gang back together for another job, characters trade banter, allude to past history and generally provide allusions to a lived-in world.

But unlike those films, the chemistry between the core team is fairly shallow; ensemble films like this require a degree of spark between the actual crew, and that spark never quite ignites. When Goss mentions a previous relationship with “The Babe” (Murielle Tello), only to learn she is now dating another member of the crew known as “The Bad-Ass” (Veronika Bozeman), the moment comes and goes and doesn’t carry any of the weight or complications such a reveal would typically hold. Extensive character moments are allotted to Hatton’s the Brain, but we never cohesively get a sense of who this character is, other than a bit fried and horny and maybe technologically savvy but also dim-witted? Movies like this live and die on the characters grabbing you and pulling you through the intricate plotting, but most just confuse or bore.

There are some individual performances that work better than others on their own terms. Goss is especially dialed in as the lead, who keeps his hand close to the vest and doesn’t reveal too much until exactly when he needs to. He is the calm at a center of a storm, and plays that even-keel like a pro. Paul Sloan also gives a good performance as Tony, “the Brawn”, who serves as the more cynical cypher to Goss’ laid back optimism. Perhaps the biggest surprise is Mercedes Kilmer, Val’s daughter, who gives a two-scene performance as…Tucker’s daughter that makes you wish there was more for her to do in the film.

Those two scenes are easily Val Kilmer’s best work in Paydirt, as everything else he does is played fairly flat. Kilmer has a rather spotty career at this point, but when he finds the character he can be among the most captivating screen presences. Unfortunately, here he simply isn’t as dialed in as he needs to be for this sort of performance. A climatic scene between him and Goss doesn’t connect, mostly because Kilmer appears to be sleepwalking through this work. It is a meaty role that Kilmer from a decade ago would have nailed. Now he seems tired and lost.

Beyond just the uneven acting and chemistry though, the actual plot of the film is probably its biggest hindrance. I appreciate that Sesma is attempting to make his “indie Ocean’s Eleven,” but the script (also written by Sesma) simply doesn’t hold up as a tightly constructed heist thriller. It is both dense and somewhat meandering, setting pieces in place to pay-off later. But without getting into spoilers, once you eventually reach the payout, it feels less like masterful plotting that rewards close attention, but rather as if it simply betrays the pact made with the audience.

More distressingly, the film has multiple scenes that indulge in outdated exploitative tropes to objectify and lessen its female cast, who are given little to really work with save for Mercedes Kilmer. It would be nice for a heist team that crosses gender and racial lines to treat these characters with a greater sense of dignity, but no less than three characters have to play honeypots at certain points in the movie.

The lackluster script is especially frustrating, because the greatest aspect of Paydirt is Sesma’s visual flair. The film often looks spectacular throughout, both from a cinematic perspective and the immersion into the Coachella Valley landscape that was so important to Sesma’s vision. You can tell how much of a passion for shooting these locations with a certain degree of reverence and respect, and the framing of certain shots and scenes definitely pay tribute to visual masters like Soderberg or Michael Mann. Sesma’s greatest strengths seem to lie in being a natural stylist, capable of capturing captivating cinematic frames that evoke a sense of grandeur that isn’t limited by his smaller budgets. It makes one long to see what his confident lens could do with better material, potentially written by someone else.

Paydirt will be in theaters, on demand and digital on August 7th.

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