Desierto review – border issues turn violent in timely thriller

Desierto is an intense yell at the screen type of thriller that doesn’t let up. This is one of those eerily timely films that has greater context given the current political climate. It’s made even more frightening by the fact it could happen.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) plays Sam, a good old boy who loathes authority and has less regard for human life. The Confederate flag adorning his truck’s antenna further helps to paint Sam as a low down, no good hombre. All that’s missing is a Make America Great Again bumper sticker to fully complete the package.

With his faithful German Shepherd riding shotgun, Sam takes a break from hunting rabbits to larger prey when he stumbles onto a group trying to cross the US border from Mexico. Seeking a chance to do his ‘part’ to keep America protected, Sam breaks out his rifle and savagely guns them down.

Following the initial slaughter, only a handful of straggler survive. Moises (Gael García Bernal), Adele (Alondra Hidalgo) and three other would-be immigrants managed to escape Round 1. Making it through to see another day might be difficult.

Maybe the scariest part of the film is some viewers will confuse the psychopathic killer as the Desertio’s protagonist.

Director/co-writer Jonás Cuarón (the son of Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón) stages a brutally efficient thriller in broad daylight. There’s no cover of darkness and Moises and Adela can only use their surroundings as momentary sanctuary.

Jonás Cuarónco co-wrote Gravity and there’s definitely that familiar theme of helplessness against overwhelming odds. In this case it’s a walking NRA ad and his killer dog.

Cuarón and co-screenwriter Mateo Garcia potentially could have approached the film from a deeper perspective. There’s definitely room to explore the desperation of those crossing the border and the rabid mindset of others to keep them out.

Ultimately, Desierto is a simple thriller — one that doesn’t devote much time to character development or greater philosophical debates. It’s all about the thrills. Despite the setting, the potential harsh desert environment rarely comes into play.

While his character is lightly fleshed out, Bernal gives Moises enough backstory so we’re rooting for his survival. Hildago is the largely ineffective female sidekick fortunate enough to stick to the guy with a reasonable chance to survive til the end.


In staying true to the genre, the characters act frustratingly stupid. Beyond nut jobs with sniper rifles, it’s probably not advisable for folks trying to cross the border to constantly yell and draw attention to themselves. The group strategy is also questionable. Surrounded by heavy rocks and boulders, the group opts to run away instead of even at least attempting an ambush.

Cuarón could have used more restraint in killing off so many of the characters early on. The constant threat and actual deaths of the group throughout the movie would have been more effective than one big burst in the early stages. Sam also has to start becoming less effective as the film progresses just to stretch the hunt out longer.

Cuarón and Garcia suggest Sam might be off mentally, but don’t expand on that subplot. It’s just as well. Sam is an unrepentant killer and there’s no need to work in even a hint of sympathy.

Desierto might not hold up the longer you try and analyze it, but as an in the moment thriller, it’s brutally effective that keeps your attention right to the end.

Rating: 7 out of 10