Give “Desierto” credit for this: There has never been a more appropriate time for a tense thriller about Mexican immigrants avoiding the murderous advances of a gun-wielding American lunatic. Released a little over a year after Donald Trump labeled the majority of undocumented Mexicans living in the U.S. as drug-dealing rapists in the same breath as announcing his presidency, the first feature from director Jonas Cuarón (the son of “Gravity” director Alfonso, with whom the younger Cuarón wrote the screenplay) doesn’t deliver much in the way of ingenuity. But it’s baked in a topical kind of dread.
“Desierto” takes the form of a minimalist B-movie, spending only a modicum of time setting up the premise before settling into the prolonged cat-and-mouth dynamic that dominates the story. After a handful of Mexicans assemble on the outskirts of the U.S. border, surrounded by barren desert, their transit hits an abrupt when the militant Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, gruff, scowling and unapologetically one-note) takes aim at the group through the scope of his rifle. In a series of alarming shots, their numbers quickly dwindle, leaving a handful of survivors to sneak around the rocks in the hopes of avoiding Sam’s murderous intentions.It doesn’t take a literature doctorate to comprehend the symbolism of the character’s name: The whole movie functions as a prolonged metaphor, though it fares better at stating the terms of the situation than digging into their causes.
The hero of this taut scenario is Moises (Gael Garcia Bernal), an experienced traveler who takes advantage of the terrain to survive the ordeal even as the body count rises. Bernal’s soft features and small build make him the ideal antithesis to the growling macho lunatic who fires off endless rounds at the survivor, though the routine grows tedious with time. Despite the gorgeous, red-tinted scenery captured by cinematographer Damian Garcia and a jarring sound design that pierces quieter sequences with abrupt gunfire, “Desierto” doesn’t do much with its world beyond setting poor Moises loose in an awful situation as he dodges and ducks his way to freedom. It might have worked better as an arcade game.
But that same underlying simplicity often makes “Desierto” just compelling enough to hold immediate appeal. The migrant workers offer hints of fragmented lives on both sides of the border, but the limited setting reduces their struggle to an abstract plane, to the point where the movie’s ongoing battle reaches an abstract level. Imagine Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” directed by Roger Corman and you might start to get a sense for the scrappy appeal that guides the movie along. It has the scope of a big-screen showdown but falls short of placing sophisticated characters within it. Sam, whose ridiculous babblings reach an absurd extreme in his final scenes, sounds like the parody of a Trump supporter who lost his way to the rally. Spouting blunt threats at every moment, he’s about as much fun to watch.
“Desierto” throws subtlety to the wind, but not without purpose. Viewed in a broader context, it clarifies the extremes of nativistic impulses that initially gave the Trump campaign its horrifying boost in the polls; with few details about the timing of its events, the movie may as well take place in a near-future in which the Republican candidate has taken charge.
But then again, Trump doesn’t have to win for the insanity of the Sam character to resonate. Some 6.5 million undocumented Mexicans live in the United States, a figure that should reflect the desperation of people who need the help of their more powerful country next door; instead, it has been simplified into the fuel for another Red Scare. “Desierto” lingers in the harsh depiction of fear that morphs into psychosis. One well-choreographed car crash arrives just when it seems like the surviving characters might make it out alive, underscoring the sense of uncertainty about their situation at every turn.
“Desierto” includes one twist that implies legitimate authorities can do little to rectify the criminal acts at the center of the plot. Instead, Cuarón suggests that the border control issues come down to every man for himself. The purgatorial quality of the desert landscape becomes a battleground unlikely to go away anytime soon, no matter who controls the terms of the conversation about its existence.
“Desierto” opens in limited release on October 14.