Jonas Cuaron collaborated with his father Alfonso on the script for the Oscar-winning “Gravity,” and now (with Alfonso’s aid as producer) he offers his own survival tale, though one set on earth rather than in space. The foe against which the protagonist must struggle in “Desierto” isn’t any Newtonian force, moreover, but a man filled with hatred and a desire to kill. In that respect the film can be seen more as a take on that old chestnut, “The Most Dangerous Game,” though one imbued with contemporary political overtones.
The hunter is Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who’s not specifically identified as anybody’s uncle but certainly stands in for the dark side of the iconic one. Driving his heavy-duty truck into the wilds separating Mexico and the US, he brings his high-powered rifle and hunting dog Tracker on a mission to wipe out any folk from south of the border who might be trying to invade what he describes matter-of-factly as his home. An encounter with a cop as he enters the parched, rocky area only proves to him that nobody else is doing the job.
On the other side are two groups of undocumented men and women traipsing across the .landscape after the far from heavy-duty truck carrying them all has broken down. Sam has no difficulty in picking off all the members of the first bunch, which has moved more quickly and separated itself from the laggards. The sequence amounts to a bloody massacre, shown quite graphically. Then he turns his attention to the second group, which he and Tracker whittle down systematically until only two survivors remain—Moises (Gael Garcia Bernal) and a young woman named Adela (Alondra Hidalgo).
There’s no question about where Cuaron’s sympathies lie. As played by the effortlessly likable Bernal, Moises is a principled man—he’d earlier protected Adela from one of their companions who’d made unwanted advances on her. He’s paused along the way to help another member of the group who’d become exhausted. And he carries along with him a teddy bear that his son—whom he’s now trying desperately to get back to—had given him when he’d been deported after being arrested during an earlier stint in the States. By contrast Sam is depicted simply as an implacably hardened man moved by an irrational anger against “the other.” The character is given no backstory whatever: he sees the desert merely as a sort of personal shooting gallery where the targets happen to be human, at least in the eyes of others, though presumably not his. To drive the point home he’s played by Morgan, who is emerging as the villain du jour: he brings the same quality of sheer nastiness to this brute that he’s being called upon to endow psychotic Negan with in “The Walking Dead.”
But while “Desierto” brings no nuance or subtext to the table, it certainly works as a viscerally exciting cat-and-mouse chase story. Cinematographer Damian Garcia captures the broad, desolate vistas of what the script calls the no-man’s-land of the desert southwest in often breathtaking widescreen images, and Cuaron, acting as editor as well as director, fashions some genuinely nail-biting sequences of characters rushing headlong through the landscape or clinging to rocky cliffs and craggy outcrops. It’s hard not to believe that Bernal and Morgan weren’t actually in danger when filming their final confrontation. Hidalgo is fine, too, but the real scene-stealers among the supporting cast are the several dogs that play Tracker. (Incidentally, canine-lovers might want to avert their eyes when Tracker and Moises finally come face-to-face. Let’s just say that in the end the dog has more in common with Bruce the Shark from “Jaws” than simply a mouthful of dangerous teeth.)
There’s no denying that as a sociological or political comment on current events, this is a superficial treatment of a serious subject. As a sheer exercise in getting adrenaline rushing, however, it shares some of the same punch that Steven Spielberg brought to “Duel” many years ago—though on foot rather than wheels.