'Desierto': Film Review | TIFF 2016

A well-made, conceptually questionable immigrant drama.

Writer-director Jonas Cuaron's sharply made but simplistic second feature shares a reductive view of immigrant and border issues.

The old Most Dangerous Game/The Naked Prey man-stalking format is uncomfortably imposed on a Mexican immigrant narrative in Desierto, a sharply made but simplistic second feature from writer-director Jonas Cuaron. Although the flow of Mexicans into the United States has been a topical matter for decades, the fact that the entire subject of migrants worldwide has this year become such a hot-button issue could well work to this film’s advantage. But the spectacle of a Confederate flag-sporting redneck hunting down Mexicans stranded in the desert with a ferocious dog and a high-powered rifle doesn’t really add anything helpful to the big conversation about immigration. The film’s obvious topicality will put it in the spotlight, but the idea of a nut-job American loner using desperate border-crossers for target practice doesn’t represent the real issues in play in any meaningful or accurate manner. Equal parts action melodrama, social critique and art project (especially in regards to the heavy and pretentious musical score), this could get praised for the wrong reasons and become some sort of event, but wide acceptance is unlikely.

Cuaron directed his previous feature, Year of the Nail, in 2007 and more recently co-wrote Gravity with his father, Alfonso. It only takes a glance to notice that both the hugely successful space drama and the new film are very stripped-down survival tales in highly inhospitable settings — in this case, a remote desert area where the U.S.-Mexico border is represented by an easily surmounted barbed-wire fence.

Misfortune befalls a group of 14 migrants when the truck carrying them breaks down in the middle of nowhere; the driver then points the poor souls in the direction of the United States and wishes them luck. Fortunately, at least one of them, Moises (Gael Garcia Bernal), has been this way before and is able to guide the nervous voyagers to and over the border.

Unfortunately, what awaits them is not just heat and sand and rock but a vicious hunter with only one purpose in mind — to track and kill every Mexican he can get in his rifle sights. Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is a rangy, bearded cowboy with a heavy-duty pickup, a very powerful rifle and an amazingly fast, agile and bloodthirsty dog named Tracker. That’s all we ever know about the guy, except that he’s bad-tempered and curses a lot when things don’t go his way.

When he spots the group traipsing across a wide-open space, Sam perches on a rock and begins picking off the desperate travelers like sitting ducks, killing eight of them in quick succession. Tracker claims a victim of his own by biting the poor man’s throat, and in short order there are only two Mexicans left, Moises and a young woman, Adela (Alondra Hidalgo).

Does Sam have a reason for hating Mexicans so much? Was his wife raped and killed by one? Is he a psycho? Just a racist? A wee bit more is revealed about Moises, that he has a son up in Oakland and, because he went back to Mexico, is having trouble getting back into the U.S. But overall, psychology and motivation don’t concern Cuaron here, just the physical spectacle of the hunter and the hunted.

If the story is meant to represent the immigration debate in microcosm, it’s woefully reductive. If it’s meant to be first and foremost an action thriller, it does have a few nice moves to offer, especially in the climactic mano-a-mano between the two men on large rock formations that involves risky maneuvers, precarious positions and long drops. But even this well-staged denouement is undercut by a heavily intrusive synth score by the French artist Woodkid. Cinematographer Damian Garcia makes fine use of the superbly forbidding locations (most of the film was shot in Baja California, near La Paz).

The two leading actors effectively enough express the simplistic perspectives they’re meant to represent, but there’s no subtext or nuance called for; they’re more like action totems of diametrically opposed positions, of the intruder and the would-be guardian. The three dogs that play Tracker are mesmerizing.

Production company: Esperanto Kino
Distributor: STX Entertainment

Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Alondra Hidalgo
Director: Jonas Cuaron
Screenwriters: Jonas Cuaron, Mateo Garcia
Producers: Jonas Cuaron, Alfonso Cuaron, Carlos Cuaron, Alex Garcia, Charles Gilbert
Executive producers: David Linde, Gael Garcia Bernal, Nicolas Celis, Santiago Garcia Galvan
Director of photography: Damian Garcia
Production designer: Alex Garcia
Costume designer: Andrea Manuel
Editor: Jonas Cuaron
Music: Woodkid
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentation)

Rated R, 94 minutes