★★★ / ★★★★
The funny thing is, despite a psychotic white American deciding to go on a Mexican killing spree at the U.S.-Mexico border (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), some racist xenophobes will find enjoyment out of this picture because, for nearly its entire duration, the Mexican characters wishing to cross from Mexico to the United States illegally undergo all sorts of suffering under the hands of a nationalist murderer. Certainly the subject of illegal immigration and creating a border wall are hot button topics in the U.S., but, first and foremost, director Jonás Cuarón has helmed a strong, highly watchable suspense-thriller.
Notice how little dialogue is employed. This could have been a silent film and it would still be entertaining. As appropriate in survival, cat and mouse thrillers, the action is most critical. It prefers to show characters doing rather than sitting or talking, or—worse—pondering what it means for them to reach the so-called land of the free. The migrants’ desperation to avoid getting shot from a distance is coupled with alert and precise camera movements which create a sense of urgency. We know how thrillers like this are going to go, but it takes skill from behind the camera to allow the audience to forget some of the rules and be genuinely surprised by certain turn of events.
I enjoyed that the story dares to go beyond a white man killing brown people in the desert. During the first half, I wondered if the writers, Cuarón and Mateo Garcia, would be smart enough to tweak the plot a little bit by turning our attention on the killer. They do this by slowly taking away from things that are important to Sam and observe how he adapts, or attempt to adapt, when he loses those he values. Although a villain through and through, I enjoyed that the character is not invincible and Morgan plays the man as a monster—but an authentic one. This makes allows Sam to rise above run-of-the-mill antagonists.
Plenty of attention is paid on the details of the land. Initially, the desert looks dull: yellowish for miles, a whole lot of dirt, plants look so dry, they appear ready to be set on fire. But take notice that with each major confrontation between the hunter and the hunted (Gael García Bernal, Alondra Hidalgo, Diego Cataño), the environment is different from the one before. I especially relished the field of cacti and the bed of rattlesnakes. These scenes make the audience flinch, hold their breath, or both. It makes us think whether we would be able to crawl between the spines or stop ourselves from panicking when snakes slither on our limbs.
“Desierto” does not bother with lengthy exposition. Immediately, we are thrown in an impossible situation—which doesn’t even yet involve the gun-wielding psychopath. But once he is in the equation, relentless chases move front and center in this minimalist but enthralling picture.