In a time when illegal immigration is a pressing issue around the world and in the U.S. specifically, it’s not surprising that a film addressing the fears and dangers of Mexicans illegally crossing the US border has been made. Its approach though is quite unique in not trying to be a political thought piece, but rather plays out as a subtle thriller. It’s an approach which helps the film to stand out and offer something different, though sadly, it takes some missteps in its execution which robs it of taking full advantage of this.
Desierto follows a group of Mexicans who in their efforts to cross the US border, are met with a trigger happy and merciless vigilante (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who fed up with the lack policing of the border takes matter into his own hands and starts hunting them all down. And that is pretty much all there is to the film in terms of story. We have Moises (Gael Garcia Bernal) as the lead figure of the immigrants who is desperate to return home to his family living in the US. Outside of this backstory, the movie is essentially a cat and mouse chase game with an unfair advantage given to Morgan’s ruthless character and his arguably more vicious tracker dog, Malinois.
The dialogue takes place in a mixture of Spanish and English, with Morgan bringing much of the English dialogue while the rest of the cast speak in Spanish. The film actually qualified for nomination at the Academy Awards as a foreign language film (though in the end did not get nominated) due to the amount of Spanish in the film. With dialogue being of little consequence in the film though, even if reading subtitles is not your thing, you will still be perfectly okay in following what is going on here.
Despite the film’s lack of story, there is still a lot going on, as Desierto never really lets up on the chase. It starts off at a slow pace, but once Morgan’s character steps into the scene, there is always a sense that something bad is going to happen. Morgan does a superb job at playing the ferocious villain and he is every part as cold and heartless as the role needs him to be. His character lacks a lot of depth though as you never get to understand what makes him tick, but it adds to the mystery and terror that his character supplies.
These scenes are also well filmed and make the most of the film’s open landscape. The environment acts as critical component to the story and director Jonas Cuaron puts in a lot of effort to ensure it’s captured in all of its glory. A lot is made in the film’s promotional material of Cuaron and his more established father, Oscar-winning director of Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron (who also serves as the film’s producer), but to be fair the two films couldn’t be further apart in tone and style. Probably a good thing as Jonas sets out to do things his own way, but it can mislead your expectations if you’re expecting something as brilliant as Gravity. The cinematography by Damien Garcia is a little sketchy at times, but considering the whole movie was shot on location and using as much natural light as possible, he certainly had his work cut out for him.
All this makes for a film that is well engineered and outside of its minimalist script, a lot of thought has been put into each scene. In the end though, the film’s lack of depth does catch up to it. You never really connect with any character on the screen, removing a lot of the tension that the film tries to build. As the movie runs its course, you don’t really care for the individuals involved, but just want to see how the story plays out. [SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT] That a scene in which an animal is killed brought more emotion to me than the countless people that were killed, say a lot for where the film goes wrong with it.
The endless chase game can also only go on for so long before it stops being exciting. Although the film is thankfully kept short at a little under 90 minutes, I still got a bit bored towards the end. Desierto is certainly a great concept and a film that is well put together, but in the end it is mainly just that – a great concept. A little more depth into its characters and story might’ve gone a long way to giving us a film as fresh as what this one should’ve been.
Desierto is out now on DVD