It appears to be quite ironic and fitting, given the current debate in the political stables of the U.S. concerning immigration and Trump’s wall, to see a film about a man hunting and killing Mexican immigrants surface.
Disregarding its socio-political overtones, Desierto follows a group of immigrants attempting to cross the border and enter the United States. They soon finds themselves relentlessly tracked down and picked off by a hunter, Sam, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Gael García Bernal plays one of the Mexicans trying to get back to the U.S. to see his son, and it’s he who inevitably becomes the primary individual facing off with the killer.
Desierto is written and directed by Jonás Cuarón, who co-wrote Gravity with his father Alfonso Cuarón (director of that film). As with Gravity, Cuarón utilises an enormous open area for wide shots and delves into themes of isolation, with suspense being a primary tonal objective. While not quite as effective as that space survival thriller, Desierto does glue you to the screen, keeping you constantly anticipating what moves each character will make and how the next scene will play out. It’s an effective cat-and-mouse thriller, carrying little room to breathe as almost the entirety of the movie is fueled by a suspenseful chase.
It’s always great to see Morgan on screen, and he’s great as the antagonist here. His character is by far the most intriguing out of all the cast, and yet, unfortunately, his character is underutilised overall. There are subtle traits of Negan (the Walking Dead role he would move onto after this) seeping through, as well as odd similarities to John Jarratt’s Mick Taylor from Wolf Creek, which is possibly the closest comparison Desierto has to any other film – a killer hunting down immigrants in a desert-like landscape. However, Mick Taylor was utilised far more effectively, which further highlights were this movie slips: characterisation.
Not much is known about any of the immigrants except for Gael García Bernal’s Moises, and only then his story is very brief, which makes you care very little as his predicament worsens and the bodies start piling up. Morgan’s character would have had strong potential, if only there was more to him. Apart from a few subtle references when he’s speaking to himself or ‘Tracker’ (his loyal dog), no real reason is provided as to why he’s hunting down and killing these individuals. As great as Morgan’s charm and charisma is, you just wish there was a little more to him. Put simply, the film could have benefited with some back-story and further development.
Desierto provides some elements of a very entertaining indie thriller – some impressive cinematography, effective suspense, a good setting, a straightforward cat-and-mouse narrative and a somewhat intriguing antagonist. Unfortunately, its ultimate letdown is that it’s a very bare-bones picture, without the meaty layers to really care in the long run.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10