Jonás Cuarón’s Desierto is a narratively stripped-down thriller about a group of Mexican refugees, reluctantly led by Moises (Gael García Bernal), being hunted at the U.S.-Mexican border by Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a whiskey-swigging, rifle-wilding American accompanied by his ferocious pooch, Tracker. Cuarón opens the film with a relatively serene and striking shot of a desert landscape, as the title slowly dissolves into focus, perched behind the distant vista. It’s a great image, bolstered by the filmmaker’s decision to emphasize the vastness of the open terrain at the start, which is shortly contrasted with Sam’s insatiable taste for hapless violence.
But the film quickly devolves into a third-rate The Most Dangerous Game. Any perceptive dialogue or contemporary socio-political subtext is pummeled by Cuarón’s preference for empty genre thrills, as each Mexican is graphically, almost gleefully, picked off one. (A blaring score by Woodkid complements the violence; instead of underlining or emphasizing the horror, the music’s fast drums and pulsating rhythms sound like they’ve been culled from a Ford pickup commercial.) By the end of the film’s first third, which is capped by Sam’s slaughter of a dozen Mexicans and a subsequent one-liner, “Welcome to the land of the free,” Cuarón’s maximal direction could almost be appreciated as bizarro camp because of the hyper-stoic visage it maintains throughout.
Cuarón wants to indulge archetypal genre templates and transcend them too, a choice that he roundly proves unable to reconcile in any thoughtful manner. Like the recent Cop Car, Desierto’s noirish depiction of isolation and dread proves to be an endgame. At least Jon Watts’s film has the good sense to acknowledge its inherent silliness by progressively morphing Kevin Bacon’s bad cop into a maniacal, even humorous Terminator type. Cuarón merely clings to Sam’s one-note evil, as if a Southern caricature who’s hungry for Mexican blood is a particularly novel or illuminating figure.