PLOT: When a dozen or so Mexican citizens make the harrowing journey across the U.S. border, they're welcomed by Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a boozy, rifle toting maniac aiming to pick each person off one by one. It's up a young father named Moises (Gael Garcia Bernal) to dig deep and mount a counterattack.
REVIEW: Upon a six year respite following his intimate debut feature YEAR OF THE NAIL (2007), Mexican filmmaker Jonas Cuaron joined forces with his father, Alfonso, to extend their vast creative canvas to the cosmos in the spiritually affirming, Oscar winning GRAVITY in 2013. Now, with the equally connotative title DESIERTO (DESERT), Jonas has grounded a small-scale terrenean terror, a pulse-pounding, politically charged track-and-hunt thriller that serves as one giant rebuke to the virulent immigration stance professed by a certain Flock of Seagull haired egomaniac here in America. Seriously. On the surface, this movie functions as a taut and tense chase-and-trap thriller. Subtextually, the movie functions giant middle finger to Donald Trump's bigoted, wall-building xenophobia. Despite the extremity of the point made, despite being a monotonous one-track story all the way through, due to the uncompromisingly graphic violence and captivating turns by its two leads - Gael Garica Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan - DESIERTO is a trenchant and timely destination indeed!
Dawn breaks across the acrid dessert along Mexican-American border. We instantly get a sense of the size, scope and daunting envelopment of nature itself. A rickety truck rolls through the frame, breaks down, and soon we see the dashed hopes of about a dozen or so Mexicans harbored in the back of the pickup. So starts their dangerous and improbable pilgrimage to the so called land of the free. The group is lead by a guy named Lobo (Marco Perez), who asks who among the immigrants has any mechanical expertise. Raising his hand is Moises (Bernal), an upstanding young man we later learn is a father of a boy in Oakland, California...and doggedly determined to make it back to him and his wife. See, after a routine stop for a break-light being out, Moises was deported back to Mexico soon thereafter. Informing Lobo the unfixable truck need be towed, the dozen or so people start on foot toward the border. Along the way that we gather more about Moises' good natured character, as he thwarts a perverted advance by sweaty older dude toward a young girl named Adela (Alondra Hidalgo), consoling her and ultimately striking up a much need friendship. The advancement of Sam (Dean Morgan) however - a bourbon-swilling, rifle-aiming redneck with the most deplorable notions of nationalistic patriotism - not so easily avoidable.
See, this Sam fella is a real piece of work. Sussed to be some kind of former war vet, decked in fatigues and measuring distance in klicks, etc., he rolls around in a dusty pickup truck with his trusty killer-canine, Tracker, an ostensible cross between a German Shepherd and a Doberman Pincher. Their key objective? To literally scour the barren desert borderland and kill every Mexican intent on illegally crossing into the United States. Never mind a wall, this dude will snipe your ass in cold blood. And if he can't reach, he'll sick is rabid dog on you until he goes full on CUJO. We won't betray too much from here, except to say that Sam exacts a gorily indefatigable death-toll, and whether it's at the barrel of his rifle or at the sharpened teeth of his growling mutt, the graphic nature of the violence in the film is something Cuaron does not shy away from. He shows the grueling mayhem in full, which lends the movie an undeniable power as it relates to not only the sympathy for the victims, but also to the utter loathsomeness of this cowardly, hateful assailant. To not show these ugly transgressions in full would somehow recuse Sam of the abject horror he continues to incur. Some may flinch, wince and downright wriggle, but the violence in the movie is one of the strongest and most realistic aspects of the entire movie. And so, no, it's not gratuitous. It's precisely the point.
So too is the sheer difficulty of besting the desert to cross the border. No doubt about it, Cuaron ups the obstacles by depicting nature exactly the way it is...vast, cruel, unforgiving. With intense 120 degree heat, a dearth of water, towering cacti, jagged rock edifices, swarming rattlesnakes, the arid sun-scorched land hard and uncomfortable...these conditions are far harsh enough for one to overcome on their own. So to interject a heinously racist Terminator like Sam, the impediments to survival in this story become thrillingly twofold. Of course, this only makes us root twice as hard for Moises and Adela to not just concoct a means of escape, but to justly give Sam a dose, at least in part, of his own treatment. Again, we can't say too much, but the way the movie gets resolved - including a nearly silent, chest-thudding final 20 minutes expertly choreographed with high-wire suspense and tension in a way faintly aromatic of Hitch's NORTH BY NORTHWEST - is also among the movie's strong suits. Think Ghandi's "eye for an eye" quotation, and you'll realize the recourse Moises takes is not only the moral one, but actually the more difficult one.
Look, as political propaganda, how much you enjoy this film will likely depend on which side of the fence you fall on (no pun). However, as an outright, old-school white-knuckle thriller with an agenda to simply entertain, the movie certainly has enough merit on its own to warrant a watch. Not only in terms of the man versus nature subplot, which is handled deftly and honestly, the sweeping expanse of the titular geography providing as daunting a foe as it could ever be. And not just in terms of the perilous stalk-and-shoot template most of the narrative clings to. It's when the two obstacles meet in the final 20 minutes - the deleterious desert environs and the malefic mania of Sam himself - that the movie lends the opportunity for Moises to doubly triumph, and thereby give us the audience a chance at twice the catharsis. Sure it's a bit one-note and only features one large location and few characters, and yes the point about immigration is made to the extreme. But Couple the aforementioned with the credence of two compelling performances and a whole lot of unclotted bloodshed, and yeah, DESIERTO is a worthy a place to visit!