PLOT: As they try to cross the Badlands into the United States, a group of illegal immigrants from Mexico attempt to evade a rifle-toting psychopath determined to make sure they never make it into his country.
REVIEW: Proving the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, Jonas Cuaron (son of Alfonso and his co-writer on GRAVITY) exhibits a masterful style with his new film DESIERTO, a thoroughly intense thriller that comes at quite an interesting time for two reasons: The current political climate in the U.S. and the impending debut of The Walking Dead Season 7. The second reason is certainly not as important or of-the-moment as the first, but it matters because both The Walking Dead and DESIERTO boast menacing, attention-grabbing performances from one Jeffrey Dean Morgan. At this point, we should pretty much accept no one can smile with such sinister ferocity as a Jeffrey Dean Morgan villain.
DESIERTO takes an incredibly simple approach to its taut story of a merciless hunter and his frenzied prey. Morgan's character, Sam (unnamed in the actual film) is a hard-drinking pseudo-patriot who does his part for the United States by gunning down illegals crossing over into his country. With a savagely loyal dog by his side, Sam takes to the Badlands of the U.S./Mexico border and picks off frightened immigrants one by one; if he can't get them from afar, he'll do it up close. During the two days DESIERTO spans, Sam finds his work cut out for him when a handful of his targets escape his wrath. The entirety of the film is Sam relentlessly tracking his quarry as they (Gael Garcia Bernal's Moises among them) scramble to figure out what to do. (The answer is, not much.)
Technically, DESIERTO is superb. Gorgeous cinematography simultaneously compliments the beauty of the desert wasteland while also highlighting its near-impossible terrain. When it needs to, Cuaron's camera becomes frantic (running alongside the group as they try to outrun whizzing bullets), but it's always one of the film's main attributes. The sound design is similarly sharp and heightens the chilling cat and mouse game we see play out. It's a film meant to be experienced in a theater.
One complaint I can see being lodged is the lack of character development on either side of the conflict, but it's not a problem for me. There isn't a ton of complexity to Morgan's character; he's simply a maniac with a gun and what he believes is a privilege. "This is my home," he victoriously shouts after a smattering of successful kills. Morgan is an actor who can play scary as well as he can charming (see, naturally, The Walking Dead or Watchmen), but DESIERTO doesn't attempt to get too close to Sam's internal strife. I don't mind that the movie doesn't add layers to the man, even though he is one of our point of view characters. He's single-minded, we know what he's here for, hence his backstory is irrelevant. (A nice touch is that his trusty hunting dog is unimaginatively named Tracker.)
To be fair, there isn't a whole lot of fleshing out done to our protagonists, either. Outside of some minor details they remain fairly unknown to us. But Cuaron isn't interested in character study; this is lean, to-the-point suspense (political undertones notwithstanding), and DESIERTO propels quickly from start to finish like one of the bullets expelled from Morgan's gun. Bernal is always a likable presence, so we're immediately drawn to him as the lead, but the film is content to keep him a largely unexplored individual. But when the bullets are flying, the dog is giving chase, and the desert is providing the rest of the horror, you won't have to work hard to root for him and his small band to survive the ordeal. DESIERTO is an expertly-crafted white-knuckle thriller; prepare for Jonas Cuaron to carve out a name for himself forthwith.