“Welcome to the land of the free.” Words that echo throughout “Desierto” as soon as they’re spoken, not least because of who says them, and when. They bounce around the hollow chambers of this bare-bones narrative until one realizes how empty they are. Jonás Cuarón writes and directs this genre film, after co-writing the screenplay for “Gravity” with his father Alfonso Cuarón, and reminds everyone what that film’s greatest setback was (hint: not the visuals). It’s a border-crossing tale that plays out like an immigrant’s worst nightmare: getting stalked by a redneck and his vicious German Shepherd over the merciless badlands that separate the United States and Mexico.
The film showcases a fantastically simple concept that withers and dies under needless sentimentality, increasingly tedious plot development, and a climax that’s everything but quick and painless. Gael García Bernal, who is usually fantastic but just okay here, plays Moises, a man who has been separated from his family and is now desperately trying to reunite with them. He is part of a dozen Mexican immigrants attempting to cross into the States illegally, and carries a plush teddy bear he doesn’t know how to switch off (more on that later).
The group’s initial plan fails after their truck busts out, and they’re forced to continue across the dangerous desert on foot. On their journey, they run into Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, trying so hard with what he’s got), a man so stereotypical in dress and demeanor he doesn’t even need a confederate flag flapping on the roof of his dusty truck. But he’s got one anyway. Sam, who has lost his love for America and pretty much everything else except his dog Tracker, notices Moises’ group and begins to hunt them down with his sniper rifle. That’s pretty much it as far narrative is concerned. The group gets separated for no particular reason and Sam efficiently takes down most of them, until only Moises and a few others are left.
It’s hard to find a good starting point when describing the flaws of this movie, because they keep coming at you from every which way. It starts off nicely enough, with a beautiful long shot of the desert inviting the film’s massive title to fade in across the blue sky, but it’s all downhill from there. From the infuriatingly overt metaphors (our hero is named after Moses, who was also an immigrant, see? Our villain is Sam, because Uncle Sam, see?) to the tacked-on sentimentality, “Desierto” is one of the most shamelessly engineered films I’ve seen in a very long time.
Its heroes make decisions that make no sense, or start behaving in ways that completely contradict their earlier actions. Like when Moises lets Adela (Alondra Hidalgo) use his teddy bear, which he’s carrying around for a specific reason and almost gets them all killed, for a plan that fails almost instantly. Or how Sam, who shoots down seven people so expertly, suddenly starts missing the easiest targets. And while Damian Garcia‘s cinematography finely captures the scorched and desolate environment, it’s not enough to avert attention from a story that’s drier than a cactus, but with none of its sharpness. A fair warning must also go out to all animal lovers: the German Shepherd (an excellent canine performance, by the way) goes through some things that will make you squirm.
Jonás Cuarón’s political message is all-too-obvious, and even if you agree with it wholeheartedly, it’s not an excuse for believing “Desierto” is anything but a poor attempt at an intense genre piece. With a bare minimum amount of suspense, and a screenplay that needs too much work for one that has so many long stretches of silence, this film leaves you with too many reasons not to care about it. [D]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.