Director: Jonás Cuarón
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Alondra Hidalgo, Diego Cataño, Marco Pérez, Oscar Flores, David Lorenzo
MPAA Rating: (for strong violence and language)
Running Time: 1:34
Release Date: 10/14/16 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 13, 2016
Desierto is a depressingly timely thriller, disappointingly bereft of any political or personal insight. It barely qualifies as a polemic on the state of immigration in the United States, and that's saying something.
This is a movie in which there are two American characters. They are both border guards, although only one of them has the blessing of the state to perform that task. He's a momentary counterpoint to the other, unofficial guard, and he is here to point out what we can figure out pretty quickly: This other man is not representative of government policy or even the general sentiment of American citizens on the immigration issue. The real border guard has one word to describe his unsanctioned counterpart, and that word has seven letters and denotes a certain orifice.
Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), as this character is listed in the credits (although his name, as loaded as it is, may never be spoken during the course of the movie), is an overly eager vigilante—a hunter of men, women, and probably children, although the movie doesn't approach the subject of the last category. With his trusty tracking dog Tracker (No one said the guy was imaginative) by his side, he prowls the desert along the U.S.-Mexico border, driving in his pick-up truck with a small Dixie flag meekly waving from its roof.
Sam mocks the border guard for ignoring his report of seeing "illegal immigant footprints" (Yes, the misspelling is intentional), and that's when he realizes that he must take matters into his own hands. He has a high-powered rifle to make certain the job gets done—and right good.
Sam isn't just the stereotypical "ugly American." He's a new brand of stereotype: the evil American. What Sam does in the movie has happened in the past and, if one were looking to place a safe bet, likely has happened more times than gets reported in the news. That's not excusing the movie's portrayal of the character, which is about as thought-provoking as a masked psychopath in a horror movie.
He is the generic Unstoppable Killer, really—undeterred by the heat, the landscape, or any code of basic human morality. His morality is political, a level of nationalism that has turned him into a murderer. He feels no guilt over what he does. After his first killings here, he nearly comes to tears. We quickly realize they are tears of rage and righteousness.
What's strange is that the screenplay by director Jonás Cuarón and Mateo Garcia is decidedly apolitical. Of course, the obvious retort to that statement is that, surely, this movie—about a group of undocumented immigrants, making their way from Mexico to the United States, who are systematically killed by an American psychopath—is inherently political. There's no debate about that. Cuarón and Garcia's intentions are boldly obvious. That's the problem, though. We're not watching a political statement that happens to be a thriller. We're watching a thriller that happens to have a political hook.
Take the portrayal of the movie's protagonists. They are mostly nameless targets of Sam's violence. Our de facto hero is Moises (Gael García Bernal), whose name is, somehow, even more on-the-nose than the villain's. He is part of a group of 14 people who are emigrating from the homeland to the U.S., along with two coyotes.
Moises is part of a smaller group of four that lags behind the rest, and that saves the quartet from Sam's first round of hunting. The vigilante kills the larger group with his rifle from a distance, as Moises' band helplessly watches. This leaves Moises with the task of leading his people across the desert, while Sam pursues them.
Over the course of the nonstop chase and the repeated occurrences of violence, the screenplay only offers two characters a chance to voice their reasons for leaving their country, and that scene feels forced into this story. Moises has a son in Oakland, and Adela (Alondra Hidalgo) is attempting to escape the violence of her hometown.
Cuarón and Garcia know that these characters cannot merely be martyrs, but what's here simply isn't enough. If the pursuer is the embodiment of a political idea turned evil, the pursued are icons of victimhood. Neither party—the hunter or the hunted—is allowed a basic level of humanity. We can understand that thinking when it comes to Sam, who might have more scenes that reveal his character than the protagonists, since he is seen as a monster, but the immigrants are primarily defined by their fear, their desperation, and, ultimately, their deaths.
These characters are merely the players in an elongated chase that is punctuated by cruel and bloody acts of violence. From a perspective of staging, Cuarón does use the environment to great effect (an assortment of rock formations that must be scaled, a gorge that puts the protagonists between the hunter and his dog, and the vast, open spaces that offer no cover from a rifle's scope), and the obstacles here are rarely contrived to an obvious degree. The chase feels realistic in Desierto, but the characters, as well as the movie's loaded yet slight political angle, definitely do not.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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