The Desperate Trail

Starring: Sam Elliott, Linda Fiorentino, Craig Sheffer, Frank Whaley

Director: P.J. Pesce
Released: 1994

Mood: If you’ve had a tough week and you want to watch something super violent yet also kinda sweet and you don’t mind getting super mad at Sam Elliott.

The ‘90s were a freaking amazing time for Westerns. 

You got so many big hitters: Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, Unforgiven, The Quick and the Dead, Quigley Down Under, Maverick… I don’t think any decade since has been as good. 

The Desperate Trail isn’t up there with that pack of Westerns, by no fault of its own. It has a small-budget feel that it can’t quite escape. But you could do a lot worse than a low-budget Western starring Sam Elliott and Linda Fiorentino. For example, you could watch any Trace Adkins Western. 

If you love the genre and you’re a diehard Sam Elliott fan like me, this movie is a great addition to your collection.

The Desperate Trail opens with no hints as to its time or place (Wikipedia only cites it as ‘the Old West’). You can tell it’s old and West-y because a group of people are crammed into a stagecoach, bumping along a dusty landscape. 

In the coach are Jack Cooper, a well-dressed and well-spoken fellow; Marshall Bill Speakes, who says little but glowers a lot from under his bushy brows; Sarah O’Rourke, who seems over it all; and a gruff man and his wife, bearing a shiner. 

It’s quickly revealed that Sarah is Speakes’ prisoner, being taken in for murder. Then bandits attempt to rob the coach and shoot the drivers, but Speakes and Sarah kill them off. Then Sarah cuffs Speakes to the coach and attempts to rob the Wells Fargo strongbox, only to be thwarted and robbed by Jack! 

The rest of the movie is Sarah chasing down Jack to get the money, a slow reveal of WHY she needs the money, and Speakes hunting them both and killing anyone in his way.

illustration of a fancy moustache

There are several things about The Desperate Trail that make it a unique film compared to even the blockbuster Westerns of its time:

  • The action shots frequently slow down to emphasize the violence, so you get more of the bullets making contact, and way more blood
  • The score makes use of the same or similar music for every gunfight, so you instinctively get wound up before your brain has even recognized that shit’s going down
  • Sam Elliott is kind of the bad guy for a change!

Because you don’t get any backstory on Sarah (Linda Fiorentino) and Elliott plays Marshall Speakes, you just assume she’s the bad guy. I mean, it’s Sam F*cking Elliott as a lawman. So for the first half of the movie it feels very Bonnie and Clyde, and you’re rooting for Sarah and Jack but not at all in the way you will be by the end. 

That’s unfortunate, because an emotional connection to Sarah would have gone a long way for elevating the story. If I didn’t love Fiorentino – and I do, Dogma is one of my favourite movies and I could listen to her deep voice for days – I might have initially found her character to be unnecessarily mean. 

  • On that note, this movie spurred a “what the hell happened to Linda Fiorentino” Google spiral. She was one of the many, MANY Hollywood women who fell victim to being labeled ‘difficult’ by male directors. There are no recorded incidents of her actually being a jerk to costars or crews, other than Kevin Smith trash-talking her for what seem like normal demands or on-set irritations. But directors like Peter Jackson admitted to not offering her roles simply based on reputation. 
  • Someone else has done a TON of research into Linda Fiorentino’s unfair demise, give it a read!

She’s no Sharon Stone, but I still enjoyed her portrayal of Sarah – smart-mouthed, unafraid, and capable of compassion but always looking out for herself first. Fiorentino is so good at looking unfazed and unimpressed that it makes her vulnerable moments shine. 

When Marshall Speakes starts to show his dark and unlawful side and you learn more about Jack and Sarah, you realize your impressions of all of the main characters were way off base. And that’s when The Desperate Trail gets REALLY good. But if you’re not super into one of the actors, you might lose interest before that happens. 

Because the cast is so small compared to a movie like Tombstone, there’s more for Sam Elliott to do. So you get more lines, more closeups, and more action specifically featuring the man, The Moustache. By the end you’re totally torn between wanting him shot up for his cruel delight at Sarah’s fate, and being haunted by the look in his eyes when he talks about his son.

But the standout of The Desperate Trail is Frank Whaley. Holy forking shirtballs. He makes an instant impression as Jack’s brother Walter. He does more with his character in a shorter time than anyone else, grabbing you by the heartstrings and yanking them until you feel like you’re going to burst. 

Whaley had an impressive filmography leading up to this role – he had already appeared in Field of Dreams, The Doors, JFK, Hoffa, Pulp Fiction, and Swimming with Sharks.

illustration of a fancy moustache

There’s literally nothing on the Internet about this movie, which is weird for a Sam Elliott Western. But there’s no ‘trivia’ section on its IMDb entry, no details other than the plot on Wikipedia, and only two reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. I guess somehow it just failed to make an impression

But The Desperate Trail is FILLED with exciting action – if you’re a fan of Western shootouts, this movie fully delivers. There’s something not original, but at least exciting about the use of slow-mo to make the action bigger and more gripping.

And the leads all deliver strong performances. It was one of director P.J. Pesce’s first movies, and he’s gone on to direct episodes of tons of popular shows.  

I don’t know why more people aren’t into this movie. But I guess that’s good news for me, because if I’m the only one talking about it people will come right to my little website.