Desierto is a dirty, ugly thriller that muffles any possible moral quandaries in Jonás Cuarón’s border-crossing most dangerous game. Job-snatching paranoia clashes with impoverished dreams in a bloody, brutal landscape kissed by a searing desert sun, only to completely abandon tonal grittiness once tensions reach a climax.
Characters swirl a mix of emotions both from behind and in front of a high-powered hunting rifle, only to flip-flop loosely in the face of death. Cuarón’s visual and physical impact is not without power – gunshots ring and bullets strike bodies with wincing force – but a lack of character development shorts cinematic impact. Two “classes” of human are simply trying to survive, and we watch them die. Welcome to the grotesqueness of super right-wing fears come to life, something like Dick Cheney’s most vivid fever-dream.
Gael García Bernal stars as Moises, a Mexican citizen attempting to cross the US border illegally. Jeffrey Dean Morgan stars as Sam, a vigilante racist who spends most days hunting alongside his pooch, Tracker. Sam spots some human tracks and reports them to the border patrol, but nothing is done about the “situation.” Already annoyed, Sam stumbles upon Moises’ group of hopeful American inhabitants, and decides to take matters into his own hands. First, he guns down a majority of the Mexicans as they flee for cover. Moises escapes with a few others, but Sam won’t rest until those evil invaders are put down. One hero, his dog and a mission of warped patriotism – in no man’s land, you’re at the mercy of anyone with a weapon.
First, a warning. No dog lover should watch Desierto. Depicted on-screen is one for the most prolonged, gruesome acts of man-on-animal violence you’ve never wanted to witness. Even more annoying is that Tracker’s intentions are the only depth coherently written by Cuarón and Mateo Garcia, yet he’s reduced to nothing but a for-shock demise. It’s appalling, unnecessary ignorance, almost pornographic in its abuse. And for what added value? An animal unknowingly doomed by its master’s cruel intentions – just heap on the despicableness, why don’t you.
Getting past Cuarón’s pitiful pooch mutilation, he does equal damage to characters in their scripted development. For so long, Sam is touted as this “good ol’ boy” soldier who wants to keep his country clean, until he’s confronted by Moises, begging for his life. The entire film, Sam is presented as a true villain. America’s own Mick Taylor from Wolf Creek.
He swigs whiskey and kills without remorse, until every last filthy Mexican is laying face-down in a pool of blood. If his arc stayed true, he would have spat in Moises’ direction with his last breaths. Yet, he breaks down in a moment of weakness, and washes away the dastardly veneer we’ve come to understand over the last hour and thirty minutes. It’s lazy writing without conviction, jumping ship for an emotional plea.
The issue here is that malice is misrepresented as drama, with Tracker’s death being a gross extension of this mindset. Cuarón simply takes something gut-wrenching and milks every second of obvious sadness. Much like a jump-scare in horror, there’s nothing thoughtful or sincere about any message conveyed through Tracker’s death, or Desierto as a whole.
Maybe with the manic insanity of a grindhouse thriller (something far from reality like Machete Kills), then you’d have a perspective that works. Same goes for something more politically vocal, or socially relative. Instead, Cuarón simply strings together death and survival, and takes a few cinematic cues from his brother Alfonso as far as location scouting and depth of field are concerned. Sam needed deeper scripting than Republican fetishism, which would have had Moises running from a monster, not just shiny, cold steel.
As Desierto echoes gunshots that ring across a Mexican/US border built of large stone fixtures and mountainous regions, motivations escape filmmaker Jonás Cuarón. Death exists as death, and never to advance a story beyond a bad man doing worse things. Jeffrey Dean Morgan manages quite an unhinged villain in his drunken, hate-speaking persona, but Cuarón’s gross mishandling of an inherently primitive story is a certain killshot. There’s a complete lack of understanding around what makes human border hunting such an evil act, and what we get is a dusty, empty portrayal of life in its lowest form. It’s never fun to watch, nor powerful enough to speak through atrocity. Frankly, this is a disgusting movie without reason – nothing that makes for a memorable watching experience.
Desierto is one of those movies that's nasty without reason, and never really finds its stride by way of tone or message.