Desierto, directed by Jonás Cuarón, is a simple film; one that is efficient and unencumbered by a variety of things. Now with that, does of course come some positives and some negatives: primarily that while you have a film that is easy to understand and follow along with, you don’t get a film with a lot of depth. I knew the end goal, and I knew the path that was going to be taken, but was it enough to keep me interested in, Desierto? Well let’s find out through this review, shall we?
The story – much like everything else in the film – is pretty basic. A group of Mexican immigrants are attempting to cross the border into the United States. But their tough journey is made even tougher when, Sam – played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan – shows up, and he isn’t to fond of people attempting to illegally enter his country. This sparks a dangerous game of cat and mouse, as he tries to kill them all. It’s up to Moises – played by Gael García Bernal – to lead what few people remain to safety.
This is a film that is pretty basic in nearly all its facets; from story, to characters, to even he action. What I think it does well though, is make it easy to get in line with what the film is trying to achieve, and see it through to its end. The story for example: it was one that I was able to grasp really quickly, and I was interested enough to see how it would play-out. Who would survive? What terrible lengths would people go to, to achieve their goals? These were things that kept me engaged with the film.
The characters in the film, while simple, did leave me struggling morally. So we get very little in the way of development for any of the characters in the film; there is perhaps 1, maybe 2 scenes that are dedicated to trying to give some proper back-story to the protagonists, and even less is given for the films antagonist. What it does do well in this situation is make the traits of the characters very clear. Take the films antagonist, Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) he is someone with a dislike for the useless border patrol officers, he has a confederate flag flying on his truck, and he speaks very unpleasantly of people who are not from America. There, from that you can easily deduce the type of person the film is trying to convey – and Jeffrey Dean Morgan delivers well on the character he is given. The same can be said for all of the character and the actors in the film.
The problem that it did cause: was that with so little to work with, I struggled to connect myself to any of the films characters. Sure, from a basic human level, I rooted for the people in mortal danger, but from a movie watching angle, I found myself lapsing on my caring for the people in the film – which is something that is harmful to the overall experience.
But there was a particular moment in the film that completely upended my outlook on the characters – and this is where the moral dilemma comes in. Minor Spoiler. Nearer the end of the film, our main protagonist, Moises is running away from, Sam’s dog; now for context this dog has helped Sam track down and kill quite a few of the characters in the film. But nearer the end of the film, Moises lures the dog into a trap and kills it. This is where I had a moral conflict with the film. On one hand the dog had done terrible things, but on the other hand it was an animal that had no freewill, it was just doing what its owner told it to do (an owner with a very dangerous outlook on the world) and the way in which it was killed was truly distressing, and left me quite emotionally uncomfortable. I’m not saying I was then rooting for Sam to kill Moises (because I wasn’t) but I no longer was rooting to see, Moises make it to safety and get a happy ending. Seeing the demise of that animal really did effect my involvement with, Desierto.
What it did was completely diminish the final conflict between Sam and Moises for me. I no longer had any investment in either of them; their fates no longer mattered to me. So at the end of the film, I went from engaging and rooting for a particular character, to having no investment, whatsoever. Now of course this is a totally subjective response, and it may not have any bearing on someone else’s time with, Desierto… but I still had to talk about it.
But something I was able to appreciate was the technical aspects of the film; Jonás Cuarón is a very competent and deliberate filmmaker. His placement of the camera is efficient; it always perfectly translates the necessary information, without any unnecessary movement – Cuarón is not afraid to lock his camera down and let the shot play out. It worked well for the film as it always helped to keep things informative, and then when it came time to crank up the momentum, he’d pick that camera up and get it deep into the action.
Speaking of action: Desierto isn’t the most thrilling of films to watch – never was I in awe of the set-pieces I was seeing, nor did my heartrate get going, but it was action that made sense for the context of the film, and it was also action that was easy to follow. The element that did help to slightly elevate these scenes though was the music; which was intense in its delivery and memorable once it had passed. I think without it, the more intensive moments of the film would have surely been lacking.
Overall, Desierto is a film that delivers an entertaining watch. It’s a short film, with a simple enough goal, and it achieves that goal pretty well. And so I’m going to recommend, Desierto. If you find the time, this is a film worth giving a shot.
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