Election week arthouse binge part 1: Desierto

This is what most of the movie consists of. Image courtesy STX Entertainment.

Weeks ahead of potentially electing a bewigged narcissist whose central campaign promise is building a wall on the southern border, Alfonso Cuarón’s son, Jonás, makes his American writer/directorial debut — a film about a Mauser-toting psychopath who will kill anyone trying to cross the southern border.

Desierto follows Moises (Gael García Bernal) — there are just some minor, barely noticable religious themes at play here — one of about a dozen Mexicans packed into a truck crossing into the U.S. The truck’s engine fails, and they are forced to trek the rest of the way across the badlands. There, Sam (Jeffery Dean Morgan) discovers their tracks. He stalks and exterminates them.

Desierto was presented as a game of cat and mouse, but it’s more of an elongated chase scene. There are some very good movies that are just elongated chase scenes — Mad Max: Black and Chrome just crashed select theaters — but Desierto just doesn’t have enough material to fill even its slight 94 minute runtime. The whole movie takes place in just a few square miles of desert, and Sam has already killed all but two of the Mexicans within the first half hour or so. There is as much rough terrain and they do as much with his ferocious tracking dog as they can, but there just isn’t enough to work with here.

Jonás Cuarón makes poor cinematic decisions that inflame this problem. Instead of having an intimate film couched in point-of-view shots, he gives us a ton of God’s-eye views and makes his own film seem small.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the climactic sequence in which Sam chases Moises around a giant rock. That phrasing makes it sound kind of lame, but that’s what most of the sequence is — a long, static wide angle shot of this rock with Moises and Sam running around it. Moises is frantically trying to find cover in the apparently rugged cliff face, and Sam is having trouble lining up his shot before he gets behind something, a struggle they’ve been playing out the entire movie to this point.

Moises also has a significant dosage of main-character bulletproofing, which is exasperating. He’s the only one Sam has any trouble with at all.

Desierto is stretched thin and littered with unnecessary shots, but I was never bored. Even if you’re noticing all the things it’s doing wrong, it’s still gripping throughout.

The movie didn’t get nearly as nasty as I would have liked. It’s R rated and going for shock value anyway, so it would have been nice to see a little more suffering and brutality. With one major exception, the kills are all clean and quick. This is an action movie, not by genre but by structure. The details of the action are the plot. Desierto needs more details.

Desierto doesn’t just follow Moises, it also spends a lot of time fleshing out Sam’s perspective. This may have been to pad the runtime, or it may have been to resonate better with potentially xenophobic American viewers or it may have been a facetious attempt to emphasize the point it ends up making. Moises and his fellow immigrants are looking for a better life, and Sam is murdering them because he doesn’t really think of them as human beings. By setting both perspectives as equal, the film makes plain how unequal they are.

Political implication becomes the most striking thing about this movie, as has been noted extensively. They even promoted the movie with Trump’s rhetoric in Mexico. It’s hard to walk out of it not looking at immigration and America’s political and racial climate in a new light.

Leopold Knopp is a journalism student at the University of North Texas. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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