Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, Shockya
Director: Jonás Cuarón
Written by: Jonás Cuarón, Mateo García Elizondo
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Alondra Hidalgo
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 10/5/16
Opens: October 13, 2016
“Desierto” portrays a scruffy bunch of Mexican border-crossers as decent people who would probably be hard-working if they make it, and an American gun-toter as a psychotic. This may be why one critic opines that the movie would not be on Donald Trump’s best-ten list. On the other hand, the psycho could conceivably be a candidate for Trump’s head of U.S. Border Patrol since he appears quite effective in dissuading illegals, entering the U.S through a completely ineffective barbed-wire fence that eight or so migrantes crouched and crossed.
“Desierto” eventually becomes a two-character manhunt, which is why you might be amazed if you stay for the end-credits to see how many people are involved in the crew and how much money a film by an indie studio like STX had to spend. It features some rollicking songs on the soundtrack with a major role for the Foley—that’s the department that reproduces sound, in this case punctuating the thump of falling bodies, the whoosh of a flare gun, the bark of a German Shepherd, the noise of a high-powered rifle with telescopic sight, the panting of the hapless Mexicans who must think that the border patrol has been given a free hand.
The two central characters, who inevitably duke it out as in similar melodramas of hunt and hunted, are Moises (Gael García Bernal) and Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Moises (Moses, in English) is appropriately named: the man who crosses a vast landscape to lead his people to freedom. His direction comes not from Heaven from the father-son team of Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón with a screenplay assist from Alfonso’s uncle Carlos. For his part, Sam—who is named only in the notes—has more than rabbits on his mind when he traverses the desert on the Baja California border with his fearless dog Tracker (uncredited though a major actor—why?)
When an unlucky group of Mexicans are loosed from the truck after a breakdown and directed to walk bearing heavy backpacks and gallons of water, they trudge across the flat land only to be picked off one by one by Sam. In one case, a fellow who temporarily gets away is eaten by Tracker, but he will be avenged later on. Sam, who attracts the attention of a lone border patrol cop, tells the authorities that he’s out in 120-degree heat to hunt rabbits, the explanation is good enough. But like psychos who shoot from rooftops such as Charles Whitman, who in August 1966 killed 49 people at the University of Texas, Sam is not politically motivated, but simply gets off on killing.
There is not much of a script as the attraction of this movie is in the photography in a remote area of land that is either flat or craggy. The actors, or stunt people, do their job jumping from rock to rock across crevices, some inevitably falling to their deaths, but not a thing is known about their characters unless you count Moises’ revelation that he has a son in Oakland and that he had crossed before, evading the authorities until stopped for a defective headlight and deported.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is well known even to those who prefer TV to cinema for his many roles including one character in “Grey’s Anatomy” and more recently as Jason Crouse, boyfriend of lawyer and governor’s unhappy spouse Alicia Florrick, in “The Good Wife.” Guadalajara-born Gael García Bernal is arguably Mexico’s best known actor with a résumé that includes the raunchy “Y tu mama también.”
In the good old days when movie houses played two features, a newsreel, a serial and coming attractions, “Desierto” would fit in nicely as a solid “B” movie. It played in the 2015 Toronto Film Festival and was selected as the Mexican entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards.
Rated R. 88 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – C
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B