[Screen It]

"DESIERTO"
(2016) (Gael Garcia Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Suspense: A group of illegal immigrants who've just crossed the border into the U.S. try to avoid an angry American who's determined to kill all of them.
PLOT:
When a truck carrying fourteen Mexicans breaks down south of the U.S. border, two of those in charge -- Lobo (MARCO PEREZ) and Mechas (DIEGO CATANO) -- agree to guide them on foot through the desert. Among them is mechanic Moises (GAEL GARCIA BERNAL) who hopes to be reunited with his son in San Diego, having last seen the boy before being deported. And there's teenager Adela (ALONDRA HIDALGO) whose parents forced her into this border crossing journey to get her out of her dangerous Mexican town.

Little do they or the rest now on foot realize it's going to be more dangerous on the other side of the border. And that's because a vigilante named Sam (JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN) is doing his own border patrol with his faithful German Shepherd, appropriately named Tracker. After Moises, Adela, Mechas and two others end up separated from the main group, they're horrified by a distant view of Sam picking off the others one by one with his rifle.

They flee, not knowing where to go, with Sam determined to hunt them down. As he and his dog do just that, Moises does what he can to help the others avoid the killer far, far away from civilization and any hope of outside help.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
In nature, there's a vast difference between being any sort of young animal and those that have reached maturity. While the youngsters enjoy playing and chasing each other around, when they're adults that usually means it's likely meal time for the animal in the rear. While human kids likewise enjoy chasing one another (and thus the rise of childhood games like "Tag You're It"), adults don't face that same sort of consumption threat from each other (except in a few sporadic cases of cannibalism). But if someone comes at and chases you, your fight or flight instinctual response is going to kick in, thanks to thousands of years of "don't get eaten" mental wiring.

Hollywood has long been aware of that and the fact that most of us will feel empathy for any good movie character who's being pursued by a bad one. And thus filmmakers have long used chases in their films, be those of the on foot variety or deploying other means of locomotion ranging from horses, cars, spaceships and more. Just think of movies like "The Terminator" or "Duel" that are really nothing more than a chase extended over the running time of a feature-length film. The good ones work when the peril feels legit and if we feel and thus root for the potential victim to survive. The best ones have the same, but add on any number of other layers atop them, as James Cameron did in his breakout movie about a human-looking cyborg chasing a woman who's unaware of the time travel implications involved with the chase.

Writer/director Jonás Cuarón and co-writer Mateo Garcia aren't going for anything as heady as sci-fi trappings, but they clearly have an agenda with their chase movie, "Desierto." And that would namely be addressing all of the talk in the U.S. about securing our southern border, building a wall, and the view of some Mexicans as nothing more than thieves and rapists determined to undermine the American way. That would certainly seem to be the mindset of our protagonist (unnamed in the film but listed as Sam in the credits and played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

With his Confederate flag attached to the antenna of his dusty pickup truck, he announces to his dog (symbolically named Tracker) that they're going hunting. But we know he's not referring to the rabbit he shoots as a means of warming up for the main prey. Instead, he's after a number of Mexicans he's spotted on his side of the border, and he sets off to pick them off one by one from a distance using his scope-equipped rifle.

But they're not alone, as there are five others who were left behind as stragglers by the main group. Feeling righteous and good about his actions, he decides to up his kill count by taking out the rest. Among them is a father (Gael Garcia Bernal) who just wants to get to his son who's in San Diego, while a teenage girl (Alondra Hidalgo) isn't so sure of her destination, what with her parents having sent her across the border in hopes of a better and safer life. The rest of the survivors aren't given much if anything in the way of discernible traits outside of self-survival.

And thus once the killing starts, the plot becomes nothing more than an extended chase sequence through the desert landscape of towering rock formations, cacti, rattlesnakes and empty expanses. Simply put, the prey run and the hunter and his dog pursue. On that basic level, the film works for the most part as a thriller. But without much in the way of vehicles (beyond a brief "let's escape in a truck" moment that ends badly), the foot chase action (much of which involves more walking and hiding rather than running), is fairly muted and the suspense thus arrives in seas of repetition. The bad guy either sends his dog to do his dirty work or he spots his targets, fires a long distance shot, they run and he follows.

A flick like this, especially with socio-political undertones and obvious message desires, needs more than that. But the filmmakers offer up next to nothing to give the film depth. The bad guy is bad and the victims are victims, with no real gray area beyond the latter crossing into the U.S. illegally. I'm guessing Cuarón and Garcia have done this intentionally, but it robs both the pic as well as the viewer from being as deeply immersed into the proceedings as possible. Beyond wondering what sort of rifle the villain possesses that never needs reloading (especially when he's away from his truck) or why he'd lock his truck out in the middle of the desert (beyond allowing the filmmakers an extra moment of suspense as two of the border crossers try to get into the truck while the killer dog is quickly advancing on them), I kept thinking what led the killer to this state in his life.

Did such an illegal immigrant take his job or harm someone in his family? Has he been brainwashed by listening to one-sided talk radio? Is he mentally ill (beyond the obvious aspect of killing with no remorse)? These and a myriad of other questions are never answered, and while that sort of thing is okay in a monster attacks people film like "Alien" or "Predator," the filmmakers easily could and probably should have tried to explore what makes him tick. Without that, and likewise really knowing next to nothing about those being chased, we're left with just a stripped down chase flick.

Although that works -- even if pales in comparison to the best entries in that genre -- it leaves so much on the table that could have turned what's just an okay thriller into an excellent experience worthy of lots of post-viewing debate and discussion. And while they're different sorts of movies, the superlative "Hell or High Water" from earlier this fall is a prime example of how to do that right where all of the grayness of the characters makes them and thus the film they're in all the more interesting. "Desierto" ends up high and dry in that regard and thus rates as only a 5.5 out of 10 stemming from nothing more than a primal, visceral experience.




Reviewed October 12, 2016 / Posted October 14, 2016


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