The Ivory Game: Crimson Dust, by David Bax
In the opening moments of Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani’s The Ivory Game, we are treated to an overhead shot of a black SUV racing through the desert, plumes of dust billowing in its wake. It’s the kind of shot one would expect from a second-rate Tony Scott knockoff action movie, not a sobering documentary about the ivory trade and its deleterious effect on wildlife. Unfortunately, these kinds of embellishments persist, hobbling the movie at every turn.
The Ivory Game focuses on a handful of activists and paid security workers who devote their time to stopping the poachers who illegally slaughter elephants and rhinos for their tusks, selling them at huge profits to China and elsewhere. When Davidson and Ladkani focus on raw information (like the way poaching has spread to countries like Zambia where it wasn’t previously a major problem because the herds have been too far depleted in the usual places), their film is at least engaging. It rises to the level of moving, in fact, when it focuses on the dedicated psyches of its human subjects (one security official describes the awful feeling he experiences every time “something bad happens”).
Repeatedly, though, that good stuff gets interrupted and bowled over by the film’s pretensions toward the globe-hopping espionage thriller genre. Davidson and Ladkani attempt to graft a plot onto their overview that details the search for the powerful criminal boss of one poaching ring. The tracking down of clues and kicking in of doors is far too much of a push to paint the movie’s subjects as badasses.
It’s not that The Ivory Game is a bad-looking film. In fact, it’s the best argument since Going Clear that drones can help small- to mid-budget documentaries achieve a sweeping, cinematic feel. The Ivory Game is simply a wrong-looking film.
The visual content is more appropriate when it’s more disturbing. Be warned: this movie can be a truly gruesome experience. There are numerous shots of fresh elephant carcasses, teeming with flies, the grand animals’ faces hacked away so the poachers could abscond with the tusks more quickly. Later, there’s an equally sickening if far less visceral look at how millions upon millions of dollars’ worth of tusks can be haphazardly stacked on creaky shelves in a storage closet. As upsetting as these images are, they are more effective in achieving the documentary’s ends than any of the cheap, aesthetic ornamentation that surrounds them.
Davidson and Ladkani spend too much time manufacturing intrigue in The Ivory Game. Their lack of focus gives the impression of a lack of confidence. That’s going to make it difficult to change anyone’s mind.