TIFF Journal: ‘Desierto’


Movie Rating:


Two years ago, Alfonso Cuarón’s son Jonás helped him script the stunning blockbuster ‘Gravity’. Around the same time, Jonás Cuarón was also writing his own movie, ‘Desierto’, which was a similarly stripped-down survivalist tale laced with allegory behind the action.

‘Gravity’ never quite delivered its subtext with the same skill as its immersive elements, but got away with it because the ride was so intense. ‘Desierto’, on the other hand, isn’t quite as successful in its dual aims. Sure, the surface is fine, but the message is muddled and that’s more of a problem here.

Gael Garcia Bernal plays Moises, a young man trying to illegally cross the U.S./Mexico border. He starts out crammed in a truck with a handful of other hopefuls, but when the vehicle breaks down, everyone is forced to finish the journey across the desert on foot. As if that’s not bad enough, to make matters worse a truck drivin’, Confederate flag lovin’, gun totin’, racist played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan pops up, and he doesn’t take too kindly to illegals. Along with his tracking dog that has a taste for human flesh, he starts hunting down Moises’ gang with a sniper rifle.

So, it’s a ‘Most Dangerous Game’ style survival tale. Cuarón at least nails that on a genre level. He shoots the stark desert setting in beautifully bleak ways. Once the setup is established, the filmmaker doesn’t give audiences much breathing room until the credits roll. Yes, there are contrivances to keep the action kicking towards the end, but for the most part the director walks the line between heightened thrills and gritty, realistic violence fairly well.

Unfortunately, the movie is also designed to be a parable and that’s where cracks start to form. Cuarón’s blunt-force approach to filmmaking might work when he’s pinning viewers to their seats, but when he tries to tickle their brains he’s just a little too on-the-nose, which can get irritating. It’s nice that this action/thriller attempts to impart a message at all, but thanks to a certain ridiculously-haired Presidential candidate, these themes are present and Cuarón doesn’t handle them well. The film falls flat with gratingly overblown symbolism when it gets to message time. Thankfully, the genre intensity never wavers, so the movie is far from a lost cause.

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