Desierto is the second movie directed by Alfonso Cuarón’s son, Jonas Cuarón. Released in 2015, it has a remarkable cast with Gael García as the protagonist (for example, he’s in Amores perros by Iñárritu) and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the antagonist (he’s the Comedian in Watchmen by Zack Snyder, but also Negan in The Walking Dead). I’ve seen it recently and I admit that it didn’t impress me much. Let me explain why.
The plot can be summarized in a few words: a group of Mexicans migrants (which includes García) tries to cross the border with the United States on foot but is seen by a hunter/executioner (Morgan) who kills them one by one with his sniper rifle. Will García survive the blind fury of this American racist? That’s it, and there would be nothing wrong with that, especially if the realization and the action made up for such a skeletal script, which is co-written by Jonas Cuarón himself. In fact, he previously worked on the Gravity screenplay (the 2013 film directed by his father) which is far from being great!
The finale is too predictable (from the very beginning!) and it doesn’t help watching the movie. Despite the skills of the two main actors, they have so little material to work with that it’s difficult for them to express something, to have a memorable scene. Even the political subtext, apparently easy to develop given the theme of illegal immigration, remains only sketchy, devoid of any substance. On the other hand, there are barely dialogues and the motivation of the character of Jeffrey Dean Morgan is only left to the Confederate flag in plain sight on his pickup and the brief dialogue with the border patrol agent at the beginning of the film. Too little.
And then the film is a bit ‘too “clean” for the story it tells. The cinematography is exceptional, the desert on the border between Mexico and the United States stands out full of colors on the screen, everything is well defined, from the distant cactus to the salt lake of the final scene. But in a survival movie with a psychotic serial killer I would have preferred dirty and burnt images more suitable to give the audience the sense of the hard sun, the sweat and fear! Allow me a musical parallel: jazz music requires precision, blues requires passion. This is a film with a blues soul but played as if it were jazz. And back to cinema: 28 days later (2002) by Danny Boyle is shot with a digital camera and with lots of hand-held footage to convey the sense of danger, of escaping from hordes of infected. The film wouldn’t work as well with a clean and more conventional cinematography!
In Desierto, Jonas Cuarón proves to be a good director but, in my opinion, he doesn’t put himself at the service of the movie. The result is that there’s little tension, little empathy, and the film is cold and predictable, when it should have been exciting and tense. However, keep an eye on him, surely in the future he’ll do good things! Ciao!
PS: Funny to notice another actor from The Walking Dead, Lew Temple (Axel, you know what I mean?) as the border agent.