[Note: This is a re-post of our Desierto review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. The film opens in limited release this weekend.]
In many ways Desierto, the second film directed by Jonas Cuarón, is quite similar to that blockbuster that he just wrote with his father Alfonso, Gravity. Both movies are stripped down survivalist action flicks that have deliver the goods conceptually and viscerally as genre entertainment. However, both also have an allegorical angle to their action that doesn’t work nearly as well as the surface qualities, even though it’s suppose to enhance them. While Gravity easily masked its weakness by doubling down on transcendent technique to keep brains at bay, Desierto takes on overtly political themes head on, so the unfortunately simplistic and sentimental explorations of that material are all the more apparent. As an action movie, it’s totally fine. Unfortunately Cuarón strives for something more and doesn’t quite get there.
Gael Garcia Bernal stars as a young Mexican man struggling to illegally cross the US boarder through the desert named Moises (symbolism alert!). At first he’s packed into a truck with a gang of others fleeing the country. Then the truck breaks down and they are forced to stumble the rest of the way on foot. So, that’s already a pretty bad time, but one made even worse when a villain rears his ugly head. Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays Sam (as in ‘Uncle,’ because symbolism), a truck driving, gun-shooting, confederate flag loving racist who hates illegal immigrants with a Trumpian passion. That’s pretty well all that defines his character (along with his tracking dog named Tracker) and almost as soon as he’s introduced, he pulls out a sniper rifle and starts hunting Bernal and co. like big game.
So, it’s one of those Most Dangerous Game harsh action thrillers with a politicized boarder-hopping twist. Not a bad concept and one that Cuarón executes rather well in straight genre terms. The stark, vast, open desert is milked for all possible dread. The filmmaker manages to pile one catastrophe and set piece on top of another without stretching credibility past the breaking point (well, for the most part anyways). Bernal and Morgan make for a strong hero/villain match up as well, since both appropriately grizzled and are fully capable of imbuing a sketch of a character with depth and a sense of purpose that wasn’t on the page. The action scenes manage to thrill while also serving up a sense of shock and pain that keeps it from feeling empty.
Unfortunately the movie wants to be more than a mere thrill ride. It’s politicized and symbolic, hoping to speak to the fragile US/Mexico relationship, particularly in regard to illegal immigration. The message is painfully clear and spoken loudly. Unfortunately the lack of nuance can make things feel a little tedious. Sure, you could argue that the movie is ultimately just a triller, so even hinting at something resembling subtext elevates it above most of the genre pack. However, due to the timing of the film release and a certainly ridiculously haired presidential candidate/mouthpiece, it’s a sensitive issue that isn’t well suited to Cuarón’s “hammer-meet-head” approach here.
Beyond that, Cuarón also runs out of gas a bit towards the end and has characters doing the stupid things that characters must do to extend action movies to a climax, which doesn’t sit comfortably with the realist tone he’d set. Deiserto definitely works and is an interesting genre effort, but filmmakers make it quite clear that their ambitions are aimed higher and the movie can’t quite match them. It’s certainly worth a look and suggests that Jonas Cuarón is growing as a filmmaker into someone rather interesting. This one ain’t his breakout flick though. He’s still too rough around the edges for that. But he does hit enough high notes here to suggest that breakout is coming sooner rather than later.
Desierto is Mexico’s official submission for the Foreign Language Academy Award. For a list of all the submissions, click here.