From Jonás Cuarón and Alfonso Cuarón, the acclaimed filmmakers of Gravity, comes a unique, modern vision of terror. Desierto is a visceral, heart-pounding suspense-thriller packed with tension and suspense from start to finish, starring Gael García Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries and Y Tu Mamá También) and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen). What begins as a hopeful journey to seek a better life becomes a harrowing and primal fight for survival when a deranged, rifle-toting vigilante chases a group of unarmed men and women through the treacherous U.S.-Mexican border. In the harsh, unforgiving desert terrain, the odds are stacked firmly against them as they continuously discover there’s nowhere to hide from the unrelenting, merciless killer.
With the U.S.-Mexico border debate sizzingly hot, Jonás Cuarón's 'Desierto' arrived in cinemas last year to decidely mixed reviews. At its core, the film is straight-up action/adventure devoid of overt discussions about immigration policy. The Mexican cartels are mentioned only in passing and any socipolitcal message is buried in the desert's spectacle. Scruffy Moises (Gael García Bernal) and his fellow mejicanos are riding aboard a truck headed to the border, with hopes that they can sneak across it illegally. Moises carries with him a battery-powered teddy bear that reminds him of his son, whom he aspires to reunite with in Oakland. The hopeful immigrants, though separated by personality quirks, are united in the sense that they can make a safe and peaceful journey to U.S. soil.
Sharp-shooting local bounty hunter Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his German Shepherd, Tracker, have other ideas for the aspiring immigrants. While Cuarón never assigns a particular motive for Sam's psychopathic rage, it is at least midly apparent that he is anti-immigrant. He delivers a campfire sermon in which he laments the "Hell on Earth" that he is tired of (referencing the immigrants implicitly) and his large truck sports a Confederate flag. In an early scene, he is stopped and questioned by a U.S. Border Patrol agent (Lew Temple). Sam turns the tables and probes the agent if he's seen any immigrants traipsing the desert, all of which he wants caught. The scene doesn't really work because it fails the realism test. The agent asks Sam if he has a license to carry the rifle but then lets him off the hook when Sam doesn't offer any papers or registration. The agent also never instructs him to produce a photo ID. The scene concludes with acerbic one-liners muttered by each to character to himself. When Tracker aids Sam in locating a group of immigrants, the vigilante begins firing at them, one-by-one.
Much of the movie is a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest across the desert, with Sam chasing Moises and a young woman, Adela (Alondra Hidalgo). 'Desierto' reminds me of 'Beyond the Reach' (2014), an underrated thriller where Michael Douglas and Jeremy Irvine play a very deadly hunting game of cat-and-mouse across the Mojave Desert. Pictures in this genre owe a large debt to the classic 'The Most Dangerous Game' (1932). 'Desierto' is gorgeously shot along the Baja Peninsula but the story and script are thin. If viewers realize that 'Desierto' is more cliff-hanger than insightful drama, they should be able to enjoy its thrills more.
Universal presents 'Desierto' in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this AVC-encoded BD-50. The digital transfer is very clean and nearly spotless. Cuarón and his cinematographer Damian Garcia use a spare and minimalist palette to capture the wide-open spaces during dawn and dusk. Skin tones appear unmanipulated and colors are nicely saturated with no bleeding present. Nighttime shots have decent, if unremarkable, contrast. The only blemish that I could detect was some white speckles that floated in front of the camera but that may have been debris that sprinkled in front of the lens.
Universal has divided the eighty-eight minute feature into twenty scene selections.
'Desierto' is presented with its mostly Spanish sound track along with some English dialogue in a nicely balanced DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The quiet sound of the wind rippling caught my ear during the first reel. The surrounds show distinctive separation during gunshots and chase sequences in which the speedy Tracker scampers across the desert and on rocks. Dialogue is rendered adequately but I thought that the center channel left some fidelity to be desired. It seemed to be the least-active speaker. Woodkid's suspenseful score ocassionally shows some good range and is well-integrated with the desert sounds. The English subitles are presented in a readable white font.
'Desierto' is a pretty entertaining adventure yarn but it doesn't offer much more beyond its extended chase scenes. Universal delivers a very sharp transfer as well as a clean and active DTS-HD MA track. The lone supplement is Cuarón's commentary and it's fairly standard. I would first suggest a rental. Fans of Gael García Bernal, however, may want to add it to their collections.