Combustible Celluloid
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With: Gael Garcia Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Alondra Hidalgo
Written by: Jonás Cuarón, Mateo Garcia
Directed by: Jonás Cuarón
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and language
Language: English, Spanish, with English subtitles
Running Time: 94
Date: 10/14/2016

Desierto (2016)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Laws & Borders

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This minimalist thriller is not only expertly constructed and relentlessly gripping, but it's also very timely. However, socially-aware viewers may bemoan a lack of commentary in such a simple movie. Director and co-writer Jonas Cuaron — the son of Oscar-winning filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron — previously co-wrote the screenplay for Gravity along with his father, and he takes the idea of survival in a vast, harsh environment to a different place.

A Mexican migrant worker, Moises (Gael Garcia Bernal), makes the treacherous journey to America to join his family. When the truck breaks down, he and his fellow travelers must continue on foot, in record-breaking heat. Unfortunately, an American, Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who sports a Confederate flag on his truck, a huge rifle, and a vicious dog, feels he must take it upon himself to stop the "invasion." He easily picks off most of the migrants, but Moises and a young girl, Adela (Alondra Hidalgo), manage to evade their racist hunter until nightfall. But if they are to survive and escape the desert, they must formulate a plan.

Director Cuaron's sense of place and action is excellent, racing up and down dry riverbeds and stone outcroppings, through cactus patches and piles of rattlesnakes, even if the occasional hand-held camera (understandable given the terrain) calls attention to itself. The movie's editing and music are also superb, clicking together as a fine example of tense genre filmmaking. The issue of racism and immigration are not dealt with at all, with the exception that the white characters are bad and the Mexican characters are good. But perhaps a lack of message-mongering will allow viewers to come to their own conclusions.

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