Movie Review - Desierto

This film was Mexico's submission to the 89th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. The reason can't be because the country thought this was the absolute top. The reason more likely has to do with politics and nepotism. The nepotism is that the director and co-writer of this film is Jonás Cuarón, the son of Alfonso Cuarón, the first Mexican and first Latino to win Best Director at the Oscars. He's also made several, very successful blockbusters, which gives him a lot of clout and influence, enough to get his son's movie a leg up over others.

The other reason this film was Mexico's official submission is probably due to politics. In June 2015, Donald Trump announced his campaign for President. That announcement came with incendiary statements about Mexicans and Mexico. He was talking about the immigration problem and slandered undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. as criminals, specifically as rapists and murders. Many critics saw this as inflammatory and worried about continued inflammatory remarks resulting in bigotry and even violence. When this movie premiered later that same year, it seemed like the perfect expression of what Trump's campaign can wrought. Therefore, this movie could be Mexico's way of pushing back against Trump's presidential run.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Walking Dead and The Good Wife) co-stars as Sam, a hunter who lives near the Mexican border. He seems to have a distaste for government and authority. He's heavily armed and has a Confederate flag atop his truck. He is in many ways the embodiment of a Trump supporter. He's bitter, angry and white, and he wants to take out his aggression on a minority. In fact, the entire movie consists of him going out into the desert and killing undocumented immigrants, as they're crossing from Mexico to the U.S., through sniper fire. He's like a psycho Minuteman.

The film is as much a horror film as anything else. It starts with a dozen or more of these immigrants and each one is murdered one-by-one. It follows the select few who try to survive. It seems weird to compare this film to a slasher flick like Halloween (1978) or Friday the 13th (1980), but that's only because the murders are committed with a gun, a sniper's rifle, and not some kind of knife in close-quarters, which might confuse labeling it an action-thriller.

It's comparable because Morgan's character is like most horror-film characters. Sam is a veritable Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees. The only difference is that Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees had better back-stories in that they had any back-stories. Cuarón gives us nothing for Sam. We're not given much to reveal who he is, what his family or work is, or what drove him to this point. As such, one can only project this Trump supporter-like persona onto him, rightly or wrongly.

This film then becomes something like The Strangers (2008) where the point is not to know anything about the killer or killers as was the case. Except here, that isn't the point. The point is to comment on U.S.-Mexico relations particularly in regard to undocumented immigration and how sentiment against it can go too far.

Cuarón himself goes too far by making Sam such a psychotic, blank slate, an extreme stereotype, empty and devoid of intelligence and singular in mind and action. Sam might as well be the alien from Predator (1987) or the robot from The Terminator (1984), except that Morgan is allowed and is capable of emoting every now and then. Honestly, does Sam think he can commit these murders and get away with them?

Gael García Bernal (Y tu mamá también and Babel) stars as Moises, one of the Mexican immigrnts under fire by Sam. The movie pauses almost illogically so that Moises can give a bit of his back-story. He's a mechanic with a son. His sob story echoes sentiments in something like Jane Levy's character in the recent Don't Breathe, so you know, like her, he'll be the one to survive to the end.

Whereas Uruguay filmmaker Fede Alvarez was able to make thrilling and terrifying use of a confined space, Cuarón is able to make terrifying use of the wide-open space. He does utilize things like cactus patches and rocky mountainous areas as well to great and even comical effect. A chase around huge, steep rocks proves more comedic than perhaps Cuarón intended. Like Alvarez's film, this movie makes a chilling threat out of a dog. Here, it's a ruthless German Shepherd.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated R for strong violence and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 34 mins.


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