Spoiler alert: this review reveals plot points.
Desierto’s prolonged opening shot of a sun coming up over the desert recalls the sustained sunrise that opens another modern Mexican film: Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light (2007). Then we’re with a truckload of Mexican immigrants being driven to attempt an illegal crossing over the American border; one of the passengers is reading about the Biblical exodus from Egypt – and this detail too suggests that we’re in for something rather high-flown.
But these are red herrings in Jonás Cuarón’s second directorial feature (following 2007’s Year of the Nail): this is no contemplative arthouse movie but a ferociously efficient chase drama that belongs in a line of films from The Most Dangerous Game (1932) via The Naked Prey (1965) to Punishment Park (1971) in which people in remote wildernesses are ruthlessly hunted down like game by remorseless killers.
The first sign that this attempt to enter into the US is going to go badly wrong comes as Cuarón cross-cuts to a lone American huntsman (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) out in the parched expanses of the Southwest. We know he’s a badass as he’s drinking bourbon in his truck in the 120-degree midday sun, and when he’s stopped by a patrol car it becomes clear that he doesn’t think too much of the authorities’ attempts to police the border against migrant trespass.
Set up for a multi-character ensemble thriller, it’s genuinely shocking when the hunter finally comes across the group making their way on foot through the desert and takes out most of the cast in turn with his long-range rifle – as unrepentantly as if he’d been at a turkey shoot. There’s no Peckinpah-style slo-mo, no protracted deaths here; each killing is done with cold, one-bullet efficiency.
Only a handful of stragglers – including Gael García Bernal as a baseball-capped hopeful en route to reunite with his son in Oakland – survive this bloodbath. But the hunter and his equally fearsome dog Tracker will spend the rest of the movie attempting to bring them to ground. “Welcome to the land of the free,” he one-lines as he surveys the carnage of his first day’s shooting, and Cuarón’s redneck killer thriller gives little clue to the man’s motivation, unless we read much into his desert-storm-khaki trousers. Loneliness and a hostile landscape have perhaps provided kindling enough for vigilantism to ignite from his pure racist hatred. He’s an unstoppable killing machine to rank alongside Javier Bardem’s character in No Country for Old Men (2007) – yet not for a moment does his deadly pursuit stretch credibility or become cartoonish.
Cuarón co-wrote his father Alfonso’s Gravity (2013), and if the direction in Desierto is skilful more than truly inspired, he more than proves his ability to ratchet up the tension for a breathless survival drama of his own. The sense of topography, heat and the barrenness of the buttes and salt flats are all evocatively captured in Damia Garcia’s cinematography: you can almost spell burning cactus and bullet-riddled flesh. There’s fun with a talking teddy bear, rattlesnakes, and the best death-by-flare since Dead Calm (1989), which elicited excited yells of relief from the Toronto audience – such is the intense grip with which Cuarón’s single-minded and enthralling film holds you.
There could have been a more richly subversive film in here if Desierto had pursued its own logic that no one deserves to die like rabbits. Imagine the movie in which it’s not Bernal and the girl Adela (Alondra Hidalgo) who are left as the final prey but Adela’s wandering-handed guardian on the border trip – he we’d marked out early as the group sleazebag. Could this tense and invigorating thriller have had us rooting for a life such as this?