‘Desierto’
Director:
Jonás Cuarón
Stars: Gael García Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

On the surface, the taut thriller “Desierto” is an extended chase movie unfolding in the parched borderland between Mexico and the U.S. But look deeper, and this topical film raises key points about xenophobia and migration that are critical in today’s volatile political climate. That co-writer/director Jonás Cuarón concentrates more on the action than the issues, works in his film’s favor.

When a truck headed for America breaks down in the desert, the dozen plus migrants, including Moises (Gael García Bernal, who executive produced) and Adela (Alondra Hidalgo), embark on a dangerous trek on foot in palpable 120 degree heat. Before long, Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a racist with a shotgun, kills a majority of the Mexicans, leaving the rest to scramble to safety.  

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“Desierto,” which is in English and Spanish, ratchets up the tension as Moises and other characters try to stay alive — and one step ahead of Sam. The actions scenes, which involve the characters running, jumping, climbing, and crawling through the desert, are exciting as this minimalist film races to the expected climatic showdown between Moises and Sam. 

The few talky moments — Moises recounting being deported, Adela wanting a better, safer life, or Sam bemoaning that he has come to hate his country — are didactic, but not ineffective. Cuarón is not being particularly subtle here. The music is often loud and intrusive, and the violence is grisly. Sam’s pickup truck sports a Confederate flag, and his dog, Tracker, may be the meanest screen canine since “Cujo.” In contrast, Moises is moral in his thoughts, words, and deeds. Again, these crude symbols don’t detract from “Desierto” — it is a decent action film — but they do cudgel viewers.

To his credit, Cuarón shrewdly uses his environment. The desert in “Desierto” becomes quite claustrophobic as Moises, Sam, and others become trapped by their circumstances. The cinematography, by Damian Garcia, captures the arid landscape well. In the central role, Gael García Bernal is engaging, even though he is mostly running from and reacting to Sam. In support, Jeffrey Dean Morgan displays the appropriate orneriness for a one-dimensional villain. “Desierto” may be obvious, but it delivers.

Follow Gary M. Kramer on Twitter @garymkramer