We gave it a B-
Immigration has been a hot-button issue in the race for the White House. And there’s no denying that it’s a complicated subject. Sadly, you won’t find any of that complexity in Jonás Cuarón’s Desierto — a classed-up B-movie riff on The Most Dangerous Game. Call it “Tex-Mexploitation.”
The film opens with a long shot of the sunbaked desert at sunrise. The landscape is a no-man’s-land, harsh and unforgiving. A speck on the horizon turns out to be a beat-up truck loaded with 14 Mexican illegals headed for the States. When it breaks down, the passengers are forced to continue their journey on foot. Gael García Bernal’s Moises quickly emerges as the desperate group’s leader, and eventually we find out why he’s making this dangerous trip — he’s got a wife and son in Oakland. But that’s as much backstory as director/co-writer Cuarón (who co-penned 2013’s Gravity with his father, Alfonso) plans on doling out. He’s less interested in characters than in his cat-and-mouse setup.
After crossing over, the group quickly finds itself in the crosshairs of a boozy American vigilante with a Confederate flag on his pickup and the on-the-nose name “Sam” (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who begins picking them off one by one with a high-powered rifle. After pulling the trigger, he growls, “Welcome to the land of the free.” (I fear some people who see this will growl something similar.) Those he misses become lunch meat for his bloodthirsty attack dog.
Who is this guy? Is he just a redneck psycho after sick giggles? Or is something else fueling him? Cuarón isn’t saying with this overly simplistic but effectively tense nail-biter. Given the loaded setting (and the last name of the filmmaker), Desierto should have more on its mind than just cheap thrills. B–