Starring Gael García Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Alondra Hidalgo
Son to Academy Award winning filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, 34-year-old Jonás has long since followed in his father’s footsteps. The structure of Jonás script for Gravity parallel’s what he does with Desierto, his sophomore effort in the director’s chair. It’s a pocket thriller with one of Mexico/America’s biggest bilingual stars that takes a horrific look at illegal immigrants trying to cross into America. After 9/11 we saw numerous films featuring stories from that tragedy, the same occurs with whatever recent war captivates the nation. The Mexican/American border has continually remained a hot topic, providing endless stories of anger, death, suspense and discussion.
A group of Mexican citizens, some first time border crossers, others who have been deported before, seek refuge in America. Moises (Bernal) is trying to get back to his wife and child in Oakland, California. When the truck carrying the 15 hopefuls breaks down in the badlands, they are forced to navigate the uncharted desert up to the Arizona border. Sam (Morgan) is a whiskey drinking, tattoo wearing, rebel flag flying, Arizona hunter with too much time on his hands. Unhappy with the job of the US Border Patrol, he and his dog Tracker spend days out in the desert hunting down anyone that isn’t white. “Welcome to the land of the free,” he celebrates, after using an assault rifle to murder illegal immigrants like they were sport. Moises and the remaining few must outsmart Sam if they want to make it out alive.
Cuarón cutting his teeth on style and visual exercises more than it is the delivery of a full functional film.
Recent films like Frontera (2014) or Transpecos (2016) dive much deeper into the various scenarios on the border issue. Desierto is a thriller in the structure of a horror movie. It’s a quick, yet intense, movie about survival. Cuarón quickly points out that the guy with the teddy bear is good, the guy trying to touch the leg of a female crosser is bad, and of course Sam with the rifle is the monster. There is little to no character development because Cuarón, much like he did with Gravity, expects the viewer to add their own backstories to the characters while the action plays out. It does play out too, for 90 rapid minutes this thriller keeps you tense and angry that someone so evil could disregard human life so easily. Desierto is Cuarón cutting his teeth on style and visual exercises more than it is the delivery of a full functional film.
Both Bernal and Morgan help keep the viewer engaged in a classic cat and mouse game that often borders on the absurd. Again, like a horror film, we start with a large group for our villain to kill off until we narrow it down to the main few. Desierto is very violent in the depiction of death and brutality, giving dimension to Sam’s angry thirst for justice. What this film doesn’t do is provide back story for Sam’s rage, he is just a monster in the desert. The film isn’t satisfying and that’s probably it’s biggest issue. It’s a lose-lose scenario for both our main characters, and because this film is more interested in the technical elements, while the viewer is going to get invested in the people, there is a misappropriation for what you think you’re getting.
Younger Cuarón continues to hone his filmmaking skills but delivers an unsatisfying, yet stylistic horror thriller.