Director: Jonás Cuarón
Never let your protagonist hurt the dog… unless the dog is a republican. If that’s the case, you can fire a goddamn flare gun down its gullet. You probably just read that wondering what on earth it could have to do with DESIERTO. Did I just spoil a massive plot point? It’s so absurd it couldn’t possibly happen in this film, right? Or could it? Frankly, it doesn’t matter. You see, DESIERTO is many things, but good, or any synonym pertaining to the word good, is not one of them. Mexico’s submission for Academy Award consideration is shameful. A sluggish game of cat-and-mouse that ditches nuanced politics in favor of idiotic spectacle.
Bookending its narrative on a serene shot of the quiet desert, I turned to my friend and whispered “DESIERTO.” Lo and behold, both times, the title faded in with my cheesy voice over, further validating my concern that this film’s greatest offense would be its emotional and political pandering. But frankly, I am deeply bothered by what DESIERTO has to offer, because it’s a lot more complicated than that. This misfire manages to do more harm than good. Following a group of illegal immigrants that are on the run from a maniacal, sniper-wielding “’Murican,” DESIERTO is not so much a timely political commentary as it is a slasher film. This is exploitation in the truest sense of the word, a film that is so staunchly liberal that it left me feeling like I drank the sweat of Bill Maher’s wrung-out gym rag.
Yes we RepubliCAN!
But the fundamental problem is that political comparisons give this film too much credit. DESIERTO doesn’t have any allegiance. It starts off presenting our heroes as innocent, unassuming illegal immigrants and our antagonist as a vicious killer. But later down the line a female lead remarks that one of the Mexican guides raped her. Way to give Donald Trump credit, Cuarón. But perhaps its most humiliating hiccup stems from its lack of racial slurs. For a film that is so abrasive in its portrayal of good and bad, this film conjures a villain whose meanest cuss word is “motherfucker”; a word he only utters after being left to die like Mathieu Amalric in QUANTUM OF SOLACE. Well, I suppose cartoonish villains get their cartoonish comeuppance. The only problem is that this is completely out of line with the film’s portrayal of our empathetic Mexican hero, played by Gael García Bernal.
Everyone here is a generic stereotype. Why does this man want to kill Mexicans? Who cares, he’s a mean, gun-toting villain who howls in ecstasy after murdering men and women. When a villain is such a caricature, you eliminate the possibility of making him the representation of a current, systemic issue. Why does our hero have a singing teddy bear? Because it will be a useful tool down the line. DESIERTO is so calculated, and yet it never actually says or does anything with its script. For a film that’s literally titled “desert,” this could just as well have taken place in any other rural setting. While It’d be easier to dismiss this whole thing as pure entertainment, it sickens me that this is “white people entertainment,” allowing us to find thrill in the suffering of real people without ever participating in the political discourse.
They’re murderers, they’re rapists, and some of them, I assume, can slay at parkour
The problem is that DESIERTO lacks a moral compass. There is no ebb and flow in the tension, and consequently viewers are left watching a dog chase followed by sniper fire ad infinitum. My friend managed to actually come up with a significantly more compelling narrative while he watched this trainwreck of a film. What if the villain would have been a racist, bumbling alcoholic that luckily stumbles upon a group of Mexicans, kills their leader but breaks his leg, forcing him to collaborate with the surviving immigrants in order to get home safely? I’m not saying that this would be a great film, but it would certainly allow for moments of nuance between the actors. The problem is that opinions never change in DESIERTO. Nobody actually engages with one another, and as viewers we consequently never engage with the politics that the film draws from. If SICARIO felt like a genre picture, then DESIERTO is straight out of Roger Corman’s archives.
This is the film that your edgy, delusional A/V club student made when tasked with creating “cinema for change.” There’s something to be said about the fact that the entirety of this film could have been cut down to five minutes without losing a kernel of its meager message. From the script to the cinematography, nothing here feels like it was properly planned. Director Jonás Cuarón is quite the odd duck. His sophomore effort is marked by all the trademark elements of his father’s visual style. Wide shots litter the canvas, but never carry the emotional impact that makes Emmanuel Lubezki’s style so evocative. DESIERTO is an ugly film with a handful of pretty vistas. Walking out of this hellish slog, I couldn’t say I learned anything new about the current state of affairs regarding immigration. As much as DESIERTO wishes to be relevant, this feels as far removed from authenticity as one could imagine. Oh well, at least I now know what the worst Gael García Bernal film is.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend