Desierto features excellent technical execution, but the story’s impact is debatable.
This can be viewed from a couple different points of view. It’s partly a drama rooted in border politics, but it’s also a spin on horror movies.
The situation is simple. A dozen Mexicans are hoping to cross over to American soil. They’re looking for a better life, for one reason or another. Some even have family waiting for them in the States. Historically, they see themselves in good company. After all, Jesus knew all about migration. But, unfortunately for these travelers, their truck breaks down in the middle of the desert and they have to finish their crossover on foot.
As it happens, there’s an American out rabbit hunting with his dog. Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Negan on TV’s The Walking Dead) is in his own private hell, and he’s looking to get out from his own miserable fix.
In short order, these two parties cross paths and the result is a bloody armrest-grabbing ride into dark places.
Sam phones in his observation of the illegals making their way onto U.S. soil. He also narrowly misses catching up with a border patrol truck. Dissatisfied with how things are being handled — the lack of urgency being given the situation — Sam takes things into his own hands.
Had the rule of law been followed, it would’ve been a totally different story. Instead, Sam takes the ill-advised approach of mixing alcohol with the baking head of the desert sun. They’re not pleasant companions. And they serve as fuel for his already fiery temper.
The group of migrants quickly dwindles from 12 to two. “Welcome to the land of the free,” Sam says after shooting down a half-dozen.
The action is often grisly as Sam pursues the last two migrants, Moises (Gael Garcia Bernal, Rosewater) and Adela (Alondra Hidalgo in her feature film debut).
Given how well-crafted Desierto is, including cinematography by Damian Garcia (El Narco) — and also considering the terrific casting of Morgan as an utterly unlikable vigilante and Bernal as a sympathetic migrant struggling to survive a completely unexpected gauntlet — it’s a little disappointing to not have more to hold onto at the end of the journey.
It’s a visceral experience, one that centers on the basic instinct of pure survival. And there are thrills and chills to be had, including a nest of snakes and a most gruesome end to a canine character.
Thematically, it is very much a terrestrial take on similar material explored in Gravity, which writer-director Jonas Cuaron co-wrote with his father, Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuaron. But unlike Gravity’s multi-layered and textured setting and strong central character (Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock), Desierto is decidedly landlocked and monotone.