The last time I struggled to see a movie my patience paid off and I saw Hell or High Water, one of the year’s best films (watch it be a surprise Best Picture nominee). So I was hoping, after some difficulty getting to Desierto, that it might pay off in a similar way. Haha, NOPE. Not even close. A B-grade exploitation flick with political pretensions, Desierto isn’t horrible but it’s the kind of movie that comes at you with a message and then proceeds to brain you with it for the next ninety minutes.
Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Moises, a Mexican immigrant illegally crossing the US border. One of the pros of Desierto is that it wastes no time getting through the setup and gets straight to the action. Which is: A psychotic redneck (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) with a sniper rifle hunting down and murdering Moises and his fellow emigres with gleeful abandon. It’s not a bad premise, as far as stripped-down thrillers go, and it has that current events flavor that makes the movie seem more important than it is, but Desierto tries to split the difference between exploitation flick—Mexploitation?—and commentary, and it’s worse off on both counts.
Bernal and Morgan are as good as you expect—Morgan excels at playing leering bad guys (see also: Negan on The Walking Dead), and Bernal has a wiry resourcefulness that begs to be used in a better movie. He’s an intelligent actor that projects the feeling he’s always thinking, which is an underrated quality in action heroes, and someone would be smart to cast him in a Cop Drama or Gritty Revenge Thriller. Undoubtedly that’s a big part of why he’s in Desierto—Moises is a resourceful guy who depends on his ability to out-think his rival. I just wish the rest of the movie held up to Bernal’s presence.
Co-written by Mateo Garcia and Jonas Cuaron—son of Alfonso—who is also making his directorial debut, Desierto stumbles hardest with the villain. First of all, his name is Sam, which is the most WE GET IT name in recent movie memory. Second of all, he is without any nuance or development, which, a movie like this doesn’t require Kubrickian layers, but without any kind of nooks or crannies to explore, JDM’s performance is restricted to one, ultimately tiresome, note. And make no mistake—Sam is a straight up serial killer. There really are self-appointed vigilantes patrolling the US/Mexico border, so there is some real world psychology to be explored here, but Sam has so much bloodlust he’s one second away from f*cking his gun. As a commentary on America, I mean, not entirely inaccurate. But as a movie character? It gets boring.
And that’s the main problem with Desierto. For a movie that is literally just run-and-gun action, the sociopolitical commentary—which is so obvious it’s juvenile—deadens the thriller beats until the whole thing is just gross exploitation. Exploitation films can be fun (see also: Foxy Brown, Dolemite, Shaft), but the key to good exploitation is to take a real world premise and leave behind direct parallels. Luke Cage suffered for making the same mistake of thinking it has to comment on every current event, but that’s not necessary. Audiences are smart—we can make the leap without characters like Sam. He becomes so ridiculous by the end that Desierto edges into snuff film territory, and any of the weight carried by the first half of the movie is lost by the end.
Bernal keeps the whole thing watchable, but Desierto really lets him down. A smarter movie would actually be dumber than this, knowing that the “us vs. them” mentality inherent in a border story is enough commentary and the movie itself can just focus on the characters. We don’t need to like Sam, but we shouldn’t be laughing at him, and he’s such a f*cking cartoon it’s impossible not to once he starts monologuing. It’s a fine enough looking movie, with some gorgeous desert landscape shots (lensed by cinematographer Damian Garcia), but the whack-a-mole obvious Symbolism and Meaning keep Desierto from really connecting.