Before you watch Jeffrey Dean Morgan bash somebody’s head in with a barbed-wire bat on basic cable, you can see him turn the Southern border into an immigrant shooting gallery in Desierto, the second feature directed by Alfonso Cuaron‘s son Jonas. It’s not hard to imagine The Walking Dead‘s new big bad Negan starting out this way; Morgan’s character, unsubtly named Sam (as in “Uncle”), certainly has enough skill at scoring headshots on running targets that walkers would pose no problem. We don’t know much about Sam, but what little we’re given suggests that he is not a happy fellow, and this is the only thing that makes him feel good. He’s not dissimilar to evil Aussie bushwhacker Mick Taylor in the Wolf Creek films and TV show—both are nativist outdoorsmen who hate the intrusions of others—but he’s neither as gleeful nor as smart.
A bit more is known about Moises (Gael Garcia Bernal), the most familiar face in a truck full of undocumenteds that breaks down in the desert. He’s a mechanic, and he can’t fix the engine. He has a wife and child in the U.S., and this is at least his second time crossing. He’s also noble enough to stop a fellow passenger from sexually harassing another. Oh yeah, and his clothes rather hilariously resemble a thrift-store version of Pokémon hero Ash’s signature duds (though in this case it would be the border patrol who wants to catch ’em all).
There’s a lot to be said for Cuaron’s tactic of letting character reveal itself through action, establishing the vastness of the desert with one slow establishing shot before throwing the characters into it, and danger. In theory, it gives the actors a lot of room to develop arcs through their expressiveness and physicality alone. What keeps the movie from being as effective as it could be in this area is the degree to which the production design by Alejandro Garcia has pre-caricatured Sam. Tattoos of guns and dominionist crosses? Check. Confederate flag AND Gadsden flag on his pick-up truck? Double check. Country music on the stereo as he drinks whiskey while driving, an opened beer can already in the cup-holder? Oh yeah. This isn’t a human character, as written; it’s a Hank Williams Jr. song made flesh. We may not know if he had a wife who left him, but he does have a dog… who he has trained to commit deadly hate crimes.
Fortunately, Morgan is able to rise above some of that stuff, showing genuine “runner’s high” elation after his first kills, and true despair when some setbacks are encountered. You’ll probably never sympathize with the character in any way, simply because you’re never given anything to like or understand, but Sam is ultimately a human being and not some super-powered white supremacist bogeyman. Likewise, Moises isn’t always a virtuous hero, though we do at least understand, through Bernal’s portrayal, why he does what he does.
The script is a bit of a problem, however, or so we must assume by judging what we see that was filmed; it really seems like every other page on it must have said “They run behind a different rock from the last one, hoping he won’t be able to hit them this time.” There’s jeopardy moment-to-moment, but it repeats; only when the sun goes down and Sam decides to pack it in for the night (it’s almost like that classic cartoon where the wolf and sheepdog clock out their punch cards at quitting time) that we can take a breath, learn a thing or two, and allow Moises to come up with a plan to ensure his not getting a bullet to the head.
It’s not clear to what extent this counts as production design versus location, but there is phallic symbolism throughout, from the rifles to the nest of rattlesnakes that practically sexually assault various characters’ legs, and the maze of tubular cacti that serves as one of the final obstacles. It emphasizes that this is a conflict of masculinity between Sam the impotent rageboy who wants to assert his, versus Moises the family man trying to do right for his loved ones by any means necessary. One could argue that this oversimplifies a political issue, but one could also argue, as I would, that Desierto has as much to do with an honest immigration discussion as Friday the 13th has to debates about the merits of co-ed summer camps.
That said, I’m still a bit baffled that this is being promoted like a horror movie. It isn’t. It’s an action movie if anything. Sam is never scary; he’s just a threat because he has a gun and nobody else does. And I swear, by movie’s end you will wonder why literally nobody ever thinks to pick up a rock and throw it at his head.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 burritos. If you’re a particular fan of the two principal actors you should go; if not, waiting for cable is fine.
(One last warning: Sam has a dog that is perhaps the meanest and least sympathetic canine I’ve seen onscreen since Zuul. It gets into fights, and does not win them all. If you are an animal lover and think this may upset you, act accordingly.)
Images: STX Entertainment
Luke Y. Thompson is a member of the L.A. Film Critics Association, and likes the Gadsden flag most when it’s on Metallica album covers. Tweet him at will.