Talk about timely. Jonas Cuaron’s riveting, pulse-pounding Desierto premiered not at this year’s Toronto Film Festival but during the 2015 edition. Finally, STX Entertainment, which picked up the movie for domestic distribution, will release it this week, and the movie certainly touches on the hot-button topic of illegal immigration that Donald Trump made a cornerstone of his presidential bid.
The film — which deals with a right-wing American wacko (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) lying in wait and shooting Mexican immigrants as they cross the Baja desert trying to get to the U.S. border — was in the works before that came to the fore, but it certainly could continue the debate. But, as I say in my video review above, this at heart is a strong B-movie-type action film that doesn’t let up the pace and tension for a minute.
Desierto follows a group of unarmed Mexicans led by Moises (Garcia Bernal) as they attempt to cross the barren desert on the way to a better life past the U.S. border. Morgan’s Sam and his vicious dog, Tracker, are simply lying in wait with his battered truck as he holds his high-powered rifle and picks off these innocent human beings one by one as if he were in a shooting gallery. The chase is the essence of this movie as the ever-dwindling band of survivors seeks to outrun the evil Sam, who has taken it upon himself to end immigration to America, or so it seems. The dog is complicit and takes part in a couple of choice killings. Desierto is not for those who are sensitive to violence.
While some might call this movie exploitative, using the stalking and killing of Mexican immigrants as entertainment, Cuaron and co-writer Mateo Garcia have more on their mind: The film rousingly comes down on the side of the hunted, but it’s exciting, Grade-A filmmaking. In fact, it reminded me of Steven Spielberg’s classic 1971 TV movie Duel, in which a businessman driving alone through the desert is furiously tailed and threatened by a menacing big-rig truck and its unseen driver. Desierto has that same kind of unrelieved tension. Damien Garcia’s superb cinematography is one reason why. Garcia Bernal is excellent, as is the rest of the cast who play his compatriots. Morgan, who doesn’t usually get to play the bad guy, really goes for it here and makes for a character you can’t hate enough. That goes for the dog too.
There are some thrilling twists and turns of fate in this thing that make the time we spend in this desolate location 90 minutes of cinema you won’t soon forget. Jonas Cuaron produced with his father, Alfonso Cuaron, the Oscar-winning director of Gravity, which Jonas also co-wrote. Carlos Cuaron, Charles Gillibert and Alex Garcia share producing credits. Whatever side of the fence — or wall — you are on politically, there’s no arguing that the younger Cuaron has produced a hell of a nail-biter.
Do you plan to see Desierto? Let us know what you think.