Preconceived notions might cause viewers to take sides, but Desierto is more concerned with the people than the politics when it comes to border security.
In its examination of the contention between Mexicans crossing the border illegally and Americans who don’t want them here, this taut and provocative thriller bolsters its conventional structure with an immersive visual style.
After a truck breaks down near the border, the dozen or so immigrants inside are forced to hoof it in triple-digit heat — with bad directions and few provisions — toward the United States.
Amid the lawlessness is Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who patrols the remote land with a vicious hunting dog and a shotgun, building a one-man vigilante wall with no mercy.
As Sam whittles down the group with no questions asked, Moises (Gael Garcia Bernal) becomes the leader of the migrants. He offers to protect a woman (Alondra Hidalgo) from harm and aspires to reunite with his son in California. As tensions mount, both sides become engaged in a fight for survival both against man and the elements.
As the title suggests, the desert itself is perhaps the most important character, with the barren landscapes and harsh terrain providing an appropriate sense of isolation and despair.
Considering the hot-button subject matter, the film is brutal and uncompromising yet isn’t as powerful as it could have been. Although it turns up the heat both literally and figuratively, the tendency to stretch credibility threatens to undermine the impact.
Indeed, the character depth is minimal in the script co-written by director Jonas Cuaron (son of Gravity filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron). It’s sympathetic to the Mexicans without explicitly condoning their actions, mostly because of the casual indifference of Sam, who picks off people like he’s taking target practice with little regard for motive.
The second half settles into a more formulaic cat-and-mouse story between two desperate men willing to sacrifice everything. However, a riveting final confrontation with almost no dialogue — and wide shots to accentuate the conditions — provides some redemption.
With its familiar perspective, Desierto might seem like another entry in the recent surge of films about border crossings and illegal immigration, although it can’t be easily dismissed regardless of political inclinations.