Film Review: Desierto

Tense survival thriller pits a group of desperate Mexican immigrants, undocumented and stranded in the desert, against a loner with a high-powered rifle and a powerful grudge against undocumented immigrants.
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A battered truck breaks down in the middle of the desert, somewhere near a desolate stretch of the border between Mexico and the U.S. It's not going anywhere anytime soon, so the driver orders everyone out and points them north, warning them to hide if they glimpse or hear anyone. They're going to have to walk the rest of the way across rocks and sand and cope with sun that will bring the temperature up to well over 100 degrees. The 14 passengers include both men and women, and their choice is between bad and worse: Give up and die, illegal smugglers being notorious for their lack of compassion when human cargo becomes a liability, or brave the desert with nothing except whatever they have in their bags and backpacks.

The group breaks into two, with the smaller group—which includes Moises (Gael García Bernal), who's been living in Oakland with his wife and child but was deported after a routine traffic stop revealed that he was undocumented, and Adela (Alondra Hidalgo), whose parents insisted she go to escape the violence in her hometown—lagging behind because they refuse to abandon an ailing companion. Which is why they escape the sudden volley of bullets that introduces Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a gunslinger in cargo pants with a powerful grudge against Mexicans and a trained attack dog named Tracker. He's waging his own war against illegal immigrants, and by the looks of things he's been doing it for a while. Sam is a by-the-book serial killer, and the book's first lesson is that if you stick to killing people no one cares about, you stand a good chance of getting away with it.

It's impossible not to read Desierto (Mexico's submission for Oscar consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category) as a less-than-subtle response to the current heated U.S. debate about immigration policy, especially when the cowboy with the high-powered rifle is named Sam, as in "Uncle," and the decent fellow leading others to the hope of a better life is Moises. But while there's a good chance that Desierto's politics will enrage some segments of its potential audience, it's a solid piece of filmmaking that opens in media res—no pointed shots of vultures wheeling in the blindingly blue sky, no capsule backstories—and maintains its momentum until the end.

With only one previous feature to his credit, director Jonás Cuarón keeps the story moving relentlessly forward... there isn't an ounce of fat on it (especially after more than half the cast has been expeditiously culled) and Morgan turns in a spare but surprisingly nuanced performance as bourbon-swigging Sam. For all the hissable flourishes, like his declaration "Welcome to the land of the free" while taking aim at human targets, there's the occasional glimpse of a terrible hollowness that Sam has filled up with hate.

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