Austin Film Festival Review: Desierto

Score: B

Director: Jonás Cuarón

Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Alondra Hidalgo

Running Time: 94 Minutes

Rated: R

“No one told me it’d be this hard.”

What begins as a journey to hopeful new beginnings quickly turns into a harrowing fight for survival as a group of men and women battle the elements and a rifle-swinging vigilante through the treacherous and rugged U.S.-Mexican border.

Capturing the raw emotion and the blank stare of uncertainty director Jonás Cuarón’s Desierto unapologetically takes aim at a hot topic, focusing in on the world of illegal immigration as it forces you to assert your personal beliefs, dissect the situation and uncover the real villain.

After the group’s truck breaks down in the sweltering 120° heat, they must travel the rest of the way by foot.  The vast desert plays to the visual aesthetics of the story, though it proves a double edged sword as our key players find themselves fully exposed to anyone looking.  Unfortunately for them, Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Sam (along with his highly trained tracking canine) are on the prowl.

Cuarón keenly navigates the story as if he were telling a disturbing horror tale.  Utilizing that genre’s format he separates the group, allowing one to succumb quickly, focusing in on a few key players of the other.  It is an age old approach that allows many characters to be dwindled down quickly, and though it is no surprise where we end up at the halfway point, the unexpectedly violent path in which we take to get there is anything but routine.

Gael García Bernal’s Moises quickly steps into the spotlight as a veteran crosser, creating a needed constant for the story.  With his help those left work to navigate the rough terrain, constantly outrunning the ferocious canine and begging for a break as they climb over boulders and through thick brush.  His connection with Alondra Hidalgo’s Adela is a bit misplaced, especially considering the main focal point of the film; however, their lack of chemistry escapes your mind every time you lay eyes on the gruesome Sam, an obvious tease of the forthcoming merciless Negan.

The small cast allows the simplistic story to evolve naturally.  Though it does hit the occasional gimmick as Cuarón refuses to stray too far from the genre’s age-old formula, Desierto also never shies away from the violence.  Brutal in nearly every way, we get a close up view at just how dangerous the illegal trek from Mexico to the U.S. is, a reality that at least one of the group members confirms he was not prepared for.

The cat-and-mouse chase is clean in nature.  Sure the uncertainty of what lies beyond the horizon will keep you engaged, but the film plays out much like a episodic adventure - only without the cliffhanger.

Limited dialogue keeps the audience guessing as a slew of conveniently missed shots and a well placed flare gun gets us to a rather interesting “ring around the rosie” confrontation that is so highly unbelievable and painfully predictable it hurts.

Cuarón hopes that the timely subject matter will help you overlook the lacking narrative.  Desierto plays out like a true chase film, though it brings nothing new to the table in regard to context.  Given today’s political climate, a keen opportunity is lost when you forgo the social commentary.


About Stephen Davis

Stephen Davis
I owe this hobby/career to the one and only Stephanie Peterman who, while interning at Fox, told me that I had too many opinions and irrelevant information to keep it all bottled up inside. I survived my first rated R film, Alive, at the ripe age of 8, it took me months to grasp the fact that Julia Roberts actually died at the end of Steel Magnolias, and I might be the only person alive who actually enjoyed Sorority Row…for its comedic value of course. While my friends can drink you under the table, I can outwatch you when it comes iconic, yet horrid 80s films like Adventures in Babysitting and Troop Beverly Hills. I have no shame when it comes to what I like, and if you have a problem with that, then we’ll settle it on the racquetball court. I see too many movies to actually win any film trivia contest, so don’t waste your first pick on me. My friends rent movies from my bookcase shelves, and one day I do plan to start charging. I long to live in LA, where my movie obsession will actually help me fit in, but for now I am content with my home in Austin. I prefer indies to blockbusters, Longhorns to Sooners and Halloween to Friday the 13th. I miss the classics, as well as John Ritter, and I hope to one day sit down and interview the amazing Kate Winslet.

Leave a Reply