When you come from a Hollywood directing dynasty how do you established yourself as an independent filmmaker in your own right?
Not having a critic mention it in the first line of their review probably helps, but it’s a point that bears reflecting on. Jonás Cuarón, son of Alfonso, nephew of Carlos, is already well on his way with Desierto — his second film after 2007’s Year of the Nail — a tense little thriller that plays like The Deadliest Game set along the Mexican-American border.
When their truck dies, a pair of coyotes decide to transport their undocumented human cargo by foot. Trekking through the baked-mud badlands, they’re worried about the cartels, who don’t take well it seems to intrusion on their territory. Unlike in the recent Sicario, what they should be more concerned about, however, is Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a pickup-driving vigilante who cooly begins picking off the group with a rifle — “Welcome to the land of liberty”, he intones.
Among the immediate survivors is Moises (Gael García Bernal), a deported mechanic desperate to get back to his son in The States. Marked out as much by his identifiable red hat and cuddly toy, he and the rest of the group must make their way to relative safety across rocky outcrops, through dry valleys — a last-ditch exodus in search of a better life. Cuarón’s film, which he also co-scripted, is high on thrills, short on insight into the immigrant experience.
Moises’ party are set apart only by their appearances and capabilities rather than their backstories. Still, when there’s a psycho with an attack dog in your trail who has time for character beats? JDM keeps his thrill-seeking, JD-slugging confederate the right side of caricature while Bernal conveys Moises’ growing fear and weariness.
An exhausted pursuit around a rock formation, weaving in and out of cover, provides a minor masterclass in strung-out tension. A discordant synth score thrums through the canyons, but if you’re looking for much on the dramatic front things are a bit arid.
The implicit message would seem to be that, if you can survive the heat of the crossing, the desolation, the rattlesnakes and the cacti, you shouldn’t be fair game for opportunists like Sam (or Donald Trump for that matter), but Desierto is too simple an allegory to make much of an impression.