Is “Desierto” as Dry as it Sounds? An Honest Review of a Recent Movie Thriller

By Jason Yon
Senior Writer

In continuation of the theme of last week’s article, I chose to once again return to a film that I was not able to see. I distinctly remember seeing the trailer for “Desierto” in theaters and being absolutely awestruck. The trailer was so phenomenally put together that I desperately wanted to see it. Unfortunately, the film is a film festival production from 2015 that was given a limited theater release in 2017 and I was not able to catch it on the big screen.

One of the major things that caught my attention about “Desierto” was the plot. The movie follows a group of Mexicans as they try to cross into the United States through a section of desert referred to only as “badlands.” Complicating their treacherous journey is a seemingly deranged gunman hell bent on hunting down and murdering the illegal immigrants. The deadly game of cat-and-mouse through the Southwestern American desert was heavily reminiscent of a novel I read in high school, “Deathwatch,” which I thoroughly enjoyed. This telling of course is different in the sense of the characters and the political messages, but the base plot is still there and sharp as ever.

Gael Bernal, a Mexican film director and producer, stars in Jonas Cuaron's drama production.
Gael Bernal, a Mexican film director and producer, stars in Jonas Cuaron’s drama production.

The film was advertised heavily as being from the filmmakers of the standout “Gravity” from 2013, but deeper inspection lends that the director of “Desierto” assisted in the writing of “Gravity.” It is not a big deal, but it is a little misleading. Either way, the cinematography of “Desierto” is absolutely gorgeous. The frame is almost always balanced and the takes bounce between intrusive close ups and desolate wide shots of the open desert with small specks of human presence. The choice of locations is also brilliant as the terrain, cacti, and rocks in each scene lend themselves perfectly to the action. It is magnificent. That’s where the good news stops.

The story in “Desierto” is just about as dry as the desert that its characters inhabit. Ninety-five percent of the characters in the movie die before any meaningful exposition can be brought about for them and the other characters simply do not have much going for them. The gunman, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, was given no motive or any reason at all for why he was acting with such hate and violence. Even in promotional interviews when Morgan was asked for a motive for his character he could come up with no answer. This is no fault of his of course; the script was apparently written to have him simply be a violent bigot acting on his darkest desires, which is extremely lazy in my opinion. The story would have had a much greater impact had the gunman been given a reason, comprehensible or not, for him to go to such lengths to kill people he has had no prior interaction with.

In the end, “Desierto” is a phenomenally filmed movie about a terrible situation far from civilization. The actors gave it their all, but had no chance of saving it from what I can only assume was a lazily written script. The only good decision to grace the script must have been the choice to have all of the immigrants speak Spanish with English subtitles; it certainly added to the immersion in the film. Other than that, this movie is fairly forgettable. Combined with a less than satisfactory ambiguous ending and all of the movie’s lost potential, “Desierto” is on the edge of being a trainwreck.

Score: C+

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