In Jonás Cuarón’s Desierto, the hills have eyes. Specifically, the hills in the desert that runs along the U.S./Mexico border. This is the harsh land that undocumented immigrants attempt to traverse to seek a better life. Not all of them go on to pursue the American dream.
Desierto is a horror story in which the villain is all too real. (To a point, at least. But we’ll get to that.) Cuarón, who co-wrote Gravity with his father Alfonso, maps out a rather simple story here (with co-scripter Mateo Garcia) that you’d expect to be rife with political and social commentary. But throughout its 94 minutes, the filmmakers refuse to go that deep. Call it a southwestern: There’s a bad guy and there are good guys—depending on your point of view—and one extended shoot-’em-up.
It begins with a group of Mexicans being shuttled to the border in a truck. Their guide, as it were, is Lobo (Marco Pérez); when the truck breaks down beyond jerry-rigged repair—confirmed by mechanic and fellow emigrant Moises (Gael Garcia Bernal)—Lobo orders the dozen or so riders to start walking. It’s rough and brutally hot terrain, and soon the group separates into two, with Lobo and the fitter walkers outpacing a small number who can barely put one foot in front of the other while carrying their belongings.
Moises is among the latter group, though it seems to be due more to his heroic sense of self than any physical shortcomings. He offers to help an out-of-shape traveler with his heavy bag, and soon virtually carries him. When they take a break and he notices a brutish older man (Oscar Flores) pay more attention to a young woman he was hired to watch over (Alondra Hidalgo) than she’d like, Moises steps in to tell the guy to step off. After all, you can’t root for the star of a film with such hot-topic undertones unless his character is a first-class dude.
The ones left behind keep calling to Lobo and the others, assuming that they’re screwed without him. But they shut up fast once shots start firing. High on a hill, they watch the first group on a stretch of land below fall one by one. And they realize that they have more than a strenuous trek to worry about.
Desierto then essentially turns into Ten Little Indians—or pretty much any slasher flick in the history of cinema. The shots are fired by Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a vigilante with a tenacious German shepherd and a decidedly anti-immigrant agenda. He’s not affiliated with the law; in fact, he’s hostile with a police officer who stops him on the road, not-so-subtly accusing him of not doing enough to secure the border. So Sam has apparently made it his life’s mission to take care of it himself.
Cuarón has crafted a fast-paced and often unnerving chase flick, making the most of the dialed-up heat and using a handheld camera to viscerally highlight the physical demands the Mexicans have to power through in order to evade Sam’s rifle. But the unrelenting game of hide-and-seek gets a bit tiresome, elevated only by a uniquely percussive score and, of course, the question of how it will play out.
The answer is somewhat ridiculous, as is Sam himself, who proves himself a man’s man by chugging whiskey and cackling when he kills off the first group. The last chapters require quite a suspension of disbelief as Sam continually circles his final prey around rough rocks, his previous deadshot suddenly becoming way less accurate. The denouement also includes tears that you won’t buy for a minute. Cuarón’s second feature suggests that he’s talented enough to follow in his father’s footsteps. But though Desierto may entertain, it hardly slays.