There's nothing original or interesting in this prestige slasher film taking place on the U.S. border.
Desierto (TIFF Review)
After co-writing Gravity with his father Alfonso, Jonas Cuaron has literally come down to Earth for Desierto, a survival thriller similar to Gravity except set on the border (and with a budget that was probably a fraction of his father’s film). But Desierto is first and foremost a genre film, and with a big international star in the lead it’s easy to categorize the film as “prestige grindhouse.” It’s a gritty attempt to take the hot-button issue of illegal immigration and transform it into a stalk and kill slasher on the border. The only problem is that Cuaron doesn’t have a single original idea, working with co-writer Mateo Garcia to wrap his film in the safety of conventions, thin characterizations and uninspired story beats. For a film about an unpredictable life or death scenario, Desierto plays it safe from frame one.
Moises (Gael Garcia Bernal) is in the back of a truck with over a dozen other undocumented workers traveling the desert to the U.S. The truck breaks down, and now everyone has to journey to the States on foot, a trip that should take over a day. At the same time, U.S. country boy Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is out hunting rabbits with his dog Tracker and giving attitude to someone at border patrol who stops him. If the cowboy hat, pickup truck and country music blaring from his studio doesn’t give it away immediately, Sam really hates illegal immigrants (read: non-whites). And to make sure the flipside of this equation is just as simple and underdeveloped, Moises’ defending of a young female immigrant from her predatory helper quickly establishes him as the morally righteous good guy. Then, as these stories go, their paths cross, and Sam begins hunting down Moises with his dog and rifle.
At least Cuaron builds things up nicely in the first act before Sam begins shooting down one immigrant after another, utilizing the desert locale to show off some nice compositions (the opening feels like a direct lift of the opening shot from Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light). But once the bullets start flying, Desierto amounts to watching Cuaron retrace the steps of far better films. It doesn’t come as a surprise that it takes little time for Sam to slaughter every immigrant in Moises’ company except for Moises himself, and that Sam’s aim seems to be perfect except when pointing his gun at the handsome, recognizable star. It also doesn’t come as a surprise that Cuaron seems to care little about any of the supporting cast except for a young, female immigrant who manages to survive alongside Moises (Note: I tried to find the actress’ name but no actors other than Bernal and Morgan appear to get proper credit in any of the film’s publicity, which all but says these actors are just hispanic cannon fodder). The surprising thing about Desierto is not that Cuaron has essentially made a slasher film on the U.S. border, it’s that the average slasher film is more suspenseful than this.
So with absolutely nothing subversive to bring to the table, and a mostly handheld style that does very little to use any stylistic flair to up the tension, the central chase in Desierto is really stuck in neutral, going through the motions while waiting for the next obstacle to come Moises’ way. The film is typically more dull than dumb, except for one offensive part when Cuaron takes a break to have Moises and his only surviving companion tell each other their life stories. It’s an attempt to add some character development to a film sorely lacking it, but none of it is really that necessary. Even if these characters didn’t have family in the States missing them or supportive parents, the fact is that no one deserves to have some crazed cowboy blow their head off with a rifle for trying to cross a border. The basic need to survive should resonate well enough with viewers; Cuaron’s insertion of these sob stories implies he thinks it’s a point that needs to be argued. And the last thing a film this rote needs is a condescending attitude.