BFI London Film Festival: Desierto

Directed by Jonás Cuarón

Starring Gael García Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan

by Joanna Orland

Jonás Cuarón demonstrates that he has inherited some of his father’s skill for building tension and depicting beautiful visuals, but Desierto lacks the story and substance to make this a truly spectacular film.

As a group of migrant workers cross the U.S.-Mexican border, they are picked off one by one in a brutal fashion by a misguided patriotic racist American man (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who decides to take patrolling the border into his own hands.  Gael García Bernal is the last man standing as he fights for survival in this tense thriller set in a beautiful desert landscape.

The desert itself is the main star of this film.  The young Cuarón has an eye for detail and framing, and has worked with a talented cinematographer to capture the beauty and desolation of the desert.  Nearly every shot of the landscape could be turned into a poster, and in fact, when the title “Desierto” comes on screen behind the desert scenery, I imagined this shot to be perfect for the poster of this film.  The landscape doesn’t merely serve as a pretty backdrop, but the harsh realities of the desert are also a huge obstacle for Moises (Bernal) and his companions as they flee for their lives from a sniper.  The sniper not only knows the terrain better than the migrant workers, but he also has a vicious dog with him who is able to dash across the treacherous land quicker than any human.  The threat keeps mounting against Moises as he fights for his life in an attempt to escape and survive to reunite with his family in America.

While the thrill and the landscape are well developed, the film lacks substance.  While a timely piece on the dehumanization of Mexican migrants (thanks Donald Trump), Desierto is no more than a straightforward predator vs prey chase thriller.  The stakes are high because everyone in the audience is familiar with Gael García Bernal as a protagonist, and would never root for his demise in any film, least of all in a film where people are being so brutally dehumanized.

Beyond the thrill of the chase, Desierto is nearly as barren as the desert itself.


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