Jonas Cuaron’s second feature film Desierto hinges around a fantastic premise that starts strong and then slowly, sadly devolves. Gael Garcia Bernal stars as a young man attempting to slip across the US/Mexican border with a small group. When their van breaks down, they are forced to walk across the long and lonely desert. That’s pretty bad in and of itself, but then Jeffrey Dean Morgan appears as a racist American with a deadly trained dog and a sniper rifle, looking to do a little recreational human hunting.
So, that’s a pretty good idea, mixing The Most Dangerous game with a politically relevant climate given all of those delightful things that Donald Trump has been saying lately. Cuaron of course co-wrote Gravity with his father Alfonso, which was a similar stripped bare action narrative laced with not-so-subtle metaphor. At first Desierto feels like a more politically minded spiritual sequel, but gradually Jonas’ on-the nose writing makes things difficult. Yet, it’s one thing to call Bernal’s desert traveler Moses and Morgan’s American murderer Sam (as in uncle?) as if that’s not too obvious, it’s quite another when narrative logic starts to get flayed.
Cuaron quite literally comes out guns blazing once Sam gets up to his dirty business and quickly kills off so many characters that he has a hard to thinking of things to keep his few survivors alive long enough to make it to the climax. When the final battle arrives, some of the decisions and beats feel downright laughable. Sure, silly behaviour is a staple of thriller and action movies, but Cuaron wants his to feel grounded, real, and contemporary so there’s not a lot of leeway to stretch credibility as far as he does here. On the plus side, Bernal and Morgan are fantastic throughout, the visuals are impressive, and for the bulk of the running time the movie is a tense multi-layered thriller. Unfortunately, all the elements that work are what makes it so sad to see the film fall apart while racing to the finish line.
Saturday, September 19, 9:00pm, Ryerson