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D: Jonás Cuarón / 94m

Cast: Gael García Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Alondra Hidalgo, Diego Cataño, Marco Pérez, Lew Temple

In Jonás Cuarón’s second feature Desierto, we’re quickly introduced to a group of Mexicans who are being smuggled across the border into the US. They’re in the back of a truck, and amongst them is Moises, played by Gael García Bernal. When the truck breaks down on the edge of a vast salt flat, Moises is the only one who can pronounce the truck beyond repair. Faced with the problem of how to get these “illegals” to their expected destination, two of the “guides” decide to go the rest of the way on foot. This involves trekking across some rugged countryside, but one of the guides is in more of a hurry than the other, and soon there are two groups making the journey, the ones who can keep up with the main guide’s fast pace, and the few laggers who are encouraged by the other.

The distance that develops between them comes in handy when the first group are targeted by loony self-styled border guard and all-round racist psycho Sam, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. One by one he picks them off with his sniper’s rifle, and leaves them dead in a clearing, men and women. It’s all the same to Sam, and is one area where he does believe in equal opportunity. Watching this massacre transpire, Moises and the rest of the second group, which includes Adela, played by Alondra Hidalgo, soon flee the scene, but not without tipping off Sam as to their presence. Helped by his close companion and canine buddy Tracker – who he’s apparently trained to sniff out and savage illegal immigrants – Sam hunts down the remaining illegals until only Moises remains to stand against him. Which of course he does.

Desierto - scene

Wearing its confused heart on its sleeve from the outset, Desierto wants to be a taut, hard-edged thriller: brutal, unapologetic and bad-ass. But therein lies Desierto‘s problem, because at its core it’s really a wannabe bad-ass movie that lacks conviction, and steals as much as it can from as many other variations on Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoesdack’s The Most Dangerous Game (1932) as it can. Now, a little plagiarism (or homage, as Hollywood likes to call it) can go a long way, but when that plagiarism is used to so little effect, then it makes for such a dispiriting experience that the viewer could be forgiven for taking out their own sniper rifle and blasting away at the screen just to get a buzz on. As a thriller it’s a non-starter, thanks to Cuarón’s flat, uninspired direction, and the lack of investment made by the script in any of the characters (the responsibility of Cuarón again and co-scribe Mateo Garcia).

Moises, Adela, even Sam – all are relieved of any kind of back story. We don’t know why any of the Mexicans are travelling across the border in the first place, and without this information, without knowing what their hopes or dreams or ambitions are once they reach the US, it’s nigh on impossible to care about them. Even as you watch the massacre, you’ll be more aware of how the camera has been placed than whether or not the the life of the person being shot and killed is worth your sympathy (yes, it’s a cleverly staged and “executed” massacre, and also rather well edited – so that’s okay then).

And equally we know nothing about Sam, a man of whom you could say he’s a cartridge short of a full magazine, or to border control what Bill Clinton was to same sex marriages. He’s a cipher, a boogeyman for the Mexicans to run from (and over the course of the movie that’s all they do), as he moans and complains to his acrobatic dog about the Hell he’s living in. It makes you want to yell at him, “Well if it’s that bad, sell all your guns and move to Florida!” Instead he continues to act like an avenging angel, but one with no clear conception of why he’s behaving the way he does, and so becomes a character who’s too far-fetched even to boo or hiss.

Desierto - scene2

Cuarón began writing the script around 2006, and then took time off from it to help his father make a little movie called Gravity (2013). He’s on record as saying that the problem of illegal immigrants (and not just those crossing the US-Mexico border) was always intended to be a part of the story, but watching the movie it seems clear that somewhere along the way that particular subtext got lost in translation, and in such a way that it never really appears at all. And Cuarón has also stated that he didn’t invest in any back stories because he didn’t feel they were necessary, and that viewers could – and should – have the choice to make up their own minds about things like motivation and personal choice. It seems very much as though Cuarón had several ideas for the movie, and what it was about, but somehow forgot to follow through on any of them.

In the end, and despite some stunning cinematography by Damian Garcia, Desierto is muddled and insubstantial. The performances are average, with only Morgan trying to do anything to salvage the mess he’s found himself in, and there’s an air of “that’ll do” about scenes that doesn’t help either. Fans of this kind of movie will be dismayed, while casual viewers may well wonder how on earth Desierto managed to win the FIPRESCI Prize for Special Presentations at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Rating: 4/10 – it looks good, and there’s a germ of a good idea here, but Desierto is a misfire that never recovers from its writer/director’s indecision as to what kind of a movie it should be; file under “I coulda been a contender”.