Desierto is a remarkably well-crafted no-frills thriller.

Desierto is a single-minded film that efficiently does away with the opening niceties to get to its agenda: a cat-and-mouse game between a hunter and a survivor. As a no-frills thriller, the movie is remarkably well-crafted, not taking any time off from its fist-clenched teeth-grinding narrative. It sets the stakes so high, there is always a sense of imminent danger for *any* character.

A group of Mexicans are attempting to cross into the US illegally via the harsh borderland. Among them is car mechanic Moises (Gael García Bernal). When a remorseless racist hunter (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) decides to take border-patrol duty in his own hands, the group must hide and run to survive, or get risk getting killed by the hunter or his vicious dog. What starts as an extermination becomes a gripping foot-chase for most of the length of the film.

The movie works as a slasher-film (one killer taking down a group of people one-by-one), as well as a full-length chase film, not unlike Mad Max, albeit on foot. As is the case with either sub-genre, Desierto is predictable in parts – this isn’t a criticism, but an observation about the presence of an appropriate cliché. In some cases we know what is going to happen, but Cuarón‘s treatment of the how and when is what gives the movie its quality.

A complain I had with the movie was the characterization of the antagonist. The killer portrayed by Jeffrey Dean Morgan is given a face and a few scenes for exposition. We learn a little about his agenda in killing the illegal immigrants, but this unsuccessfully partially-humanizes him. The movie could have choses the path of neither giving him an identity nor any scenes building his character, to make him more of a human-monster (think Duel). Or provide more of a backstory so that we understand his character’s motivation rather than accepting it at face-value. This half-attempt at the character robs the movie of becoming a truly exceptional effort, or even a cult.

Character issues aside, Desierto is a thrilling movie, well-shot and edited for excitement. Although just the sophomore feature of director Jonás Cuarón (son of Alfonso Cuarón and also his co-writer for Gravity), Desierto has the hallmarks of a seasoned-director and the promise of exciting films from him in the future.

Rating: ★★★★☆

About Shariq Madani

Shariq is a social, talkative, fun-loving guy who enjoys books, food and a long drive. But his real joy is in the comfortable darkness of a cinema, watching a good movie, and later spending hours discussing it.