The topic of illegal immigration has been in the news now more than ever, especially given our current political climate. Alfonso Cuarón has brought the Mexican culture to cinema long before his big blockbuster hit Gravity. Now, his son Jonás Cuarón has brought us a thriller that seeks to mix social commentary with an intense rollercoaster ride. Unfortunately, Cuarón is more interested in the latter, leaving the former as an afterthought that hardly even touches the tip of the iceberg. What could have been a thrilling ride with a gut-wrenching core has resulted in an empty hour and a half spent running around a desert.
Moises (Gael García Bernal) and a group of people seek to cross the border from Mexico into the United States. They all have their own motivations, but they all have the pursuit of a better life in common. When their transportation breaks down and they must walk the remainder of the distance, they soon discover that exhaustion is the least of their worries. A deranged man (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has tasked himself with hunting and killing each one of them before they can cross the border.
Similar to Gravity, Cuarón drops the audience directly into the action. We're provided with the bare minimum to be introduced to the straight-forward plot that unfolds. In a way, Desierto draws many storytelling techniques from the horror genre. The cat-and-mouse game that soon begins is tonally reminiscent of The Hitcher. While Cuarón seeks for it to be taken seriously, there are some noticeably B-movie elements to be found scattered throughout. This came as a bad surprise to me, although it may be welcomed with open arms by some audiences. There's no denying that this thriller is action-packed, although it becomes repetitive. This is a formulaic ride that features far too many scenes of people chasing one another in a desert, with the occasional death in between.
To make the statement that Desierto paints a sympathetic picture of illegal immigrants would be incorrect. They are all caricatures of Mexicans that have been a part of the media landscape for years. None of them are given personalities to make them feel like human beings that we want to see succeed. Most of the characters are only present to add to the body count. Even the lead character provides very little reason for us to care about his story. He has a family waiting for him in America and he was a car mechanic, but what else? That can't possibly be all that Cuarón gives us to chew on. Unfortunately, it is. Meanwhile, the antagonist is just as one-dimensional. There's no real reason for him to go to the lengths of murder, other than being a racist.
The third act slightly cranks up the intensity, although it's actually just more of the same. There are some more obstacles in certain terrain, but that isn't enough to generate the tension that the filmmaker is searching for. Be warned, there's a scene of serious animal violence that some audiences may have a difficult time stomaching. Desierto spends too much of its duration focusing on all of the wrong things, with that sequence being included. It all ultimately comes down to a good versus evil showdown, which never had me on the edge of my seat. Cuarón had some good ideas to pursue in this thriller, but ultimately found himself lost in chasing cheap thrills that never quite reach the audience.
Despite the serious problems in the screenplay, the cast does their best with what they have. Gael García Bernal is believable as Moises, especially as he speaks about the family that awaits him in America. Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays this sociopathic antagonist rather well, as he provides the character with a presence that demands our attention. Meanwhile, Cuarón's direction utilizes the environment rather well throughout. The sound design is what truly escalates the film's presentation, as there is a close attention to detail though the chase sequences.
There's a clear political message at the root of Desierto, although its execution is quite poor. For a film that wants its audience to sympathize with illegal immigrants, it does nothing to make them feel human. They're one-dimensional caricatures that never develop any connection with the viewers. However, character isn't the only element that Cuarón has difficulty establishing. The tension is almost nonexistent, as most of the running time is filled to the brim with people chasing one another in a desert. This becomes stale rather quickly. By the time the credits are rolling, one can't help but ask what the point of it all was when the film is counteractive to the very point that Cuarón wants to make. Desierto is an empty thriller that betrays its own message. Skip it.