A group of Mexican illegal immigrants, including Moises (García Bernal), become stranded in the desert trying to cross the border into the United States when the truck carrying them breaks down. With no alternative but to forge on ahead by foot, some of the group become separate. They soon discover they are prey for a racist ‘gringo’ hunter (Dean Morgan) and his dog, tired of the US border authorities not dealing with the ‘invasion’ of his homeland.
Gravity screenwriter Cuarón is more than apt at building suspense from limited surroundings. The inevitable here is ramped up from the time the truck breaks down – the question being just who is the group’s biggest threat? Interestingly, both sides in this chase are in the wrong – one more so than the other, and this is reflected in the chase itself changing course. The only true conscience is nature, the desert passing judgement on who should survive.
Cuarón does not dwell too long on the action in any one scene, moving swiftly onto the next with neatly edited sequences – some grizzly. There are sporadic moments of reflection, though, as each side ‘takes a break’. Here, the desert takes over as the overall menace one minute, while playing ‘the protector’ role the next. These pauses allow the characters, including Moises, to provide a little background on them so we don’t become completely detached from their plight/perspective in one long chase scenario.
García Bernal is as compelling as ever as a father desperate to get to his son living in the US. The actor is rather intriguing in a physical action role, combining raw acting talent and athletic ability to navigate the barren terrain. He still retains a touching vulnerability to Moises though, as he tries to survive, making him the least likely ‘action hero’ in this.
Dean Morgan is beguiling as the bigoted patriot, striking a lonely figure with pent-up rage against the beauty of the equally cruel surroundings. His frightening, modern-day cowboy hunts a new ‘enemy’ – as he sees it, equally blinkered to carry out his mission. It’s this stubborn determination both sides possess that’s a natural catalyst for the plot. Generally, this conjures up feelings of complete sadness that both sides find themselves in this political conundrum, so desperate for a resolution, however extreme.
On face value Desierto is a sheer adrenaline race but its downtime allows you to contemplate the utter futility of the situation that takes victims on both sides. Its additional political relevance elevates Cuarón’s commendable first feature in the director seat above the rest of the run-of-the-mill action thrillers.