Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language
(Spanish with English subtitles)
Directed by: Jonas Cuaron
Written by: Jonas Cuaron & Mateo Garcia
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Alondra Hidalgo, Diego Catano & Marco Perez
DESIERTO is a film that you’ve probably already seen many times before and executed in far better ways. This is an old-fashioned formulaic thriller about man hunting man, but this time around it’s been injected with the backdrop of illegal immigration. There are a handful of positives to be found here. Director/writer Jonas Cuaron (son of Alfonso Cuaron) clearly has a knack for creating beautiful visuals and milks some thrills out of this rather thin plot. However, there is an equal amount of negatives that directly result from a threadbare script and cardboard cut-out characters.
Moises (Gael Garcia Bernal) is part of a group of Mexican migrants who are illegally making their way across the U.S. border. Their already treacherous journey through a harsh desert landscape (full of heat, snakes, and deadly terrain) becomes even more dangerous when Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) shows up to hunt illegal immigrants. Sam takes pride in his country. We know this because he drives a pick-up truck, wears a cowboy hat, and has an American flag. He’s also skilled with a sniper rifle. After Sam picks off most of the Mexicans, Moises and a few others find themselves being hunted by Sam and his tracking dog, which is named Tracker (in case you were confused about what kind of dog he was).
DESIERTO is basically THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME on the US/Mexico border. The film’s half-assed political commentary isn’t exactly subtle in showing the dangers that people face when crossing the border illegally and how certain folks treat them like animals. To be honest, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this exact scenario has occurred before…but to a less over-the-top extent. Despite its simple-to-a-fault premise, this thriller does occasionally manage to thrill with a few well-executed moments. One sequence of three migrants fleeing from Tracker is sure to get the viewer’s adrenaline pumping. The scenes in which Moises attempts to outsmart Sam, finding himself mere feet away from the killer, are effective too. Unfortunately, these bits make up about a third of this mostly tedious thriller.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is an accomplished actor and brings some much-needed intensity as the film’s sniper-wielding antagonist. There are many long moments with minimal dialogue as Sam pursues these migrants with his rifle again…and again…and again to the point where the movie just becomes boring. Still, Morgan is intimidating in brief spurts. One of the movie’s most disturbing bits is sure to upset dog-lovers everywhere…even though this particular dog is a bloodthirsty monster. The aftermath of this incident also allows Morgan’s villain to deliver the most believable emotion he gets in the entire film and I really liked Sam’s final scene.
DESIERTO’s biggest problem comes in that Moises and Adela (the two main characters) are woefully underdeveloped. The biggest insight we get into their lives comes from a brief clichéd conversation midway through the film. Other than that, this story sloppily sets up two obvious plot devices within the first five minutes of running time. These bits involve: a loud mechanical bear toy that keeps malfunctioning (and surely won’t bring any unwanted attention to a hiding spot) and Moises being a mechanic (which definitely won’t come in handy with Sam’s truck). If you watch this film’s trailer, you’ve already seen the entire movie. That’s not the trailer’s fault either, because there isn’t a whole lot to this 100% formulaic thriller.
DESIERTO is just the latest dull outing in a long line of man hunting man thrillers. It has a handful of tense scenes, but these moments don’t overshadow the film’s predictability and so-so storytelling. This film’s harsh setting isn’t even fresh because 2015’s just-as-bland BEYOND THE REACH already moved THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME into the desert. In the end, DESIERTO really isn’t worth your time. It’s not terrible and certainly isn’t good either. It’s just a middle-of-the-road thriller that attempts to inject not-so-subtle political commentary into an old-fashioned formula and botches the job through bland storytelling.