DESIERTO [London Film Festival]

PrintE-mail Written by Peter Turner

Crossing the border from writer to director, Gravity scribe (and Alfonso's son) Jonás Cuarón sticks with a stripped back survival theme for his feature debut. But in Desierto, there's no groundbreaking visual effects, Sandra Bullock in space or Clooney charm to rely on; only Gael Garcia Bernal as a Mexican immigrant being relentlessly hunted by a psychotic Jeffrey Dean Morgan.

Extremely slim on story, Desierto has very little dialogue, even less exposition, and mixes genre thrills with a timely political message. Bernal is Moses, a man crowded into a truck with dozens of others who are heading to the Mexican-American border as the sun rises. When their transport breaks down, the illegal immigrants are forced to traverse the endless unforgiving landscape of the badlands on foot. But Morgan's whiskey-guzzling hunter Sam and his dog Tracker have other ideas. 

Even in a time where mass shootings are almost a daily occurrence in the United States, what happens next is difficult to swallow. Not long after they enter America, Sam picks off the majority of the immigrants with his rifle in a chilling, but highly improbable scene. Bernal escapes with just a few others and the chase (which lasts the rest of the movie) begins.

Perhaps it would be more believable had we got the opportunity to get to know some of, or indeed any of the characters. Particularly lacking is Morgan's character, who is no talk and all action, the only thing making him remotely convincing is his bond with his dog. Of course, there are people that are genuinely patrolling the borders between Mexico and America out of hatred, patriotism or some other misguided reason, and there have been cases of murder. But to fully sell the mass murder in Desierto, Cuarón’s script could have done with offering some backstory for Sam. It wouldn't excuse his actions, but it might make him a little more plausible. As it stands, Sam might even have been more credible if he'd been a full blown Mick Taylor from Wolf Creek torture-fiend. It doesn't help that he goes from crack shot to crap shot whenever the script demands him to miss a target either.

Cuarón only finds time to reveal any kind of exposition about Bernal and his fellow immigrants after the sun goes down, and the chase finally pauses for nightfall. Its bare-bones characterisation, but mostly works because the hunt is so fast-paced. Much of that is down to the real star (or stars) of the film, the three dogs that play Tracker. His speed and ferocity and ability to climb, jump and follow commands makes him even more terrifying than the psycho with the rifle. His dogged (sorry) persistence outshines even that of his owner.

The pace never slackens, with Cuarón making the most of the stark landscape. Rocks, snakes and cacti are all used for tense set pieces, while the score is equally relentless. Constantly switching between portentous pounding and quicker rat-a-tat percussion, it almost never lets up.

Desierto is a simple thriller with topical political undertones, but it could have done with a more completely written villain. Knowing little of his motives should make him terrifying, but instead he gets a little lost in the desert. With more of a balance between character and action, Desierto could have been as tragic and complex as it is suspenseful.


Expected Rating: 8 out of 10
Actual Rating: 

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