Much like the screenplay he wrote for his father’s Oscar-snaffling “Gravity”, Jonas Cuaron takes the simple idea of strangers in a strange land, puts them in a perilous situation, and pulls the trigger. Quite literally in this case, because “Desierto” is the linear roadrunner style tale of a group of Mexican immigrants being picked off one by one by Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s overly patriotic racist.
We are running with Gael Garcia Bernal’s Moises, a family man attempting to return to his son in Oakland. We gather snippets of information, sparsely provided by the script, and know very little about the rest of the group. They are essentially this film’s version of the “Star Trek” red shirts, there only to be found in the target of Dean Morgan’s killer.
With sledgehammer subtlety he is named Sam, and drives around in his pick-up truck with his tail-wagging, neck-biting dog Tracker, who is surely the nastiest on-screen mutt since Cujo.
Once he has them in his sights, “Desierto” boils down to a mixture of “Bourne” and “Wolf Creek”, and despite depicting a number of people running in different directions, as an audience you know exactly where it’s going.
That’s not to say the dusty journey isn’t an engaging one. Cuaron displays enough flourishes to indicate he could be a formidable talent behind the lens. The opening credits sunrise peaks over a landscape you’ll become all too familiar with, before the title stands tall above the terrain like the intro to a Western. Or there’s the sheer brutality of the initial takedown by Sam, which is so unforgiving in execution and effect that it sets a standard the rest of the film can’t match.
Sustaining the tension is a bit of an issue. Once the immigrants have been whittled down it becomes a repetitive cat and mouse (and dog) chase that features too many scenes of our protagonists traversing boulders. Meanwhile our redneck bogeyman suddenly and conveniently loses his superhuman ability to hit the target, allowing them to escape. It’s a cinematic trope, yes, but if you’re going to use it, mix it up a little.
This does slow down a little to allow Bernal to do something other than be a “press X to jump” computer game sprite, but you can’t help feeling his talent is wasted.
Obviously Jeffrey Dean Morgan makes the biggest impression, walking a fine line between insanity and reason. He snarls post-kill lines such as “welcome to the land of the free” that ultimately come across a little cartoonish, undermining his fear factor.
“Desierto” entertains without ever really impressing in the way you hoped it might. Although it contains the best use of a flare since “Jurassic Park” or “Dead Calm”, justifying the ticket price alone, I wouldn’t be running anywhere to catch it in a hurry.