Director: Jonás Cuarón
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Alondra Hidalgo
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
I was so excited to see Desierto. A thriller from Alfonso Cuarón’s son Jonás about the racial tension at the U.S.-Mexican border reaching a violent extreme, it couldn’t have been a more timely project. I couldn’t wait to see how the immigration debate that has fueled this election cycle would be tackled from the Mexican perspective, lending even more evidence to the idea that genre films are far more political than mainstream Hollywood. Enter 2016. Every time I find myself excited about something this year, it has to at least mildly thwart my expectations.
In the Badlands, aging American cowboy Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is out hunting rabbits when he spots a group of illegal immigrants making their way across the desert. Because the cops won’t do anything, he takes it upon himself to eliminate them with his rifle and his trusty dog, Tracker. Thus begins a long fight for survival through the cactus, boulder, and snake-strewn terrain. There are a good dozen Mexican characters, but the only ones we care about are Adela (Alondra Hidalgo), a young woman who is crossing with her lecherous caretaker Ramiro (Oscar Flores), Mechas (Diego Cataño), the right-hand-man of the leader of the expedition, and our main character and all-around good guy Moises (Gael García Bernal), who is crossing so he can be united with his wife and son.
And don’t think the hamhanded symbolism of that name has slipped past me, I’m just glad it wasn’t actually spoken aloud in the movie.
Desierto kicks things off well enough. The sun slowly rises from behind a rocky mountain as a faraway truck pootles across a vast expanse of sand, crawling across the empty frame as the title fades in. This indicates that, even as a tight, 90-minute thriller, Desierto has patience and a willingness to let a moment or mood breathe. And then, ten or fifteen minutes in, the action flares up with a sublimely horrifying massacre as Sam mows down a whole crop of immigrants in one fell swoop. It’s a dynamic, visceral moment that emphasizes his menace and the fact that, in the flat, barren desert, there’s nowhere to hide.
It’s horrifying stuff, made even worse by the thought that, in certain states where Desierto plays, audiences might just be cheering Sam on. But what the film does best is to humanize both sides. Sam shows what might even be a flicker of Last House on the Left-style remorse, but he is too warped and vengeful to know what to do with it. And the immigrants are never given much personality, but they have enough to prove a point: some of them are good people and some of them aren’t. But none of them deserve the fate delivered upon them.
This first act promises a smart, breakneck thriller that we only partially get. After the tremendous setup, Desierto just unspools with an endless procession of scenes of people running through the desert, completely failing to escalate the situation to any meaningful degree. A lot of elements it sets up don’t come into play again, which I guess defies the strict conventions of the thriller genre and avoids cliché, but in the process it also avoids having a particularly satisfying arc.
Gravity it ain’t.
Probably my biggest beef with Desierto is that its weakest point is at the exact moment we should be most keyed up: the climax. It’s a one-on-one battle around a giant rocky outcropping that… features two sweaty men inching around a boulder for twenty minutes. It’s exhaustingly tedious and converts a decently engaging thriller into an adrenaline-ectomy. I wanted so much to like Desierto, but it just falls short of being genuinely good
I do like the presentation of the villain here, giving him plenty of all-American cowboy shots that juxtapose against his inhuman evil (which is underlined by the fact that we never seem him take a single drink of water – in 120 degree weather!). But his victims only get two scenes in which to flesh out their personalities, and they squander it on a pile of cliché backstories and fumbled emotional manipulation.
By the third act, even before the tour de boredom that is the final 20 minutes, the cracks begin to show. We get to get up close and personal with some truly silly special effects and a tossed-off moralistic finale that would work if we had any sense of what kind of person Moises actually is. Desierto’s thriller elements don’t present enough of a challenge, drastically minimizing the terror after the opening setpiece an just kind of plateauing until that major nosedive. It’s still a largely enjoyable film, it just lacks the tightness and energy it could very easily have had.
TL;DR: Desierto is a solid thriller for exactly half its run time.
Rating: 6/10Word Count: 825