Desierto is the first feature film directed by Jonás Cuarón, son of Gravity helmer Alfonso Cuarón. Like that film, which the younger Cuarón co-wrote, Desierto is a lean survival picture with horror film leanings. But where that space-bound, long take journey had an underlying tone of aspiration and overcoming insurmountable odds, this dusty thriller is more concerned with perverting genre conventions to highlight the filthy underside of humanity.

Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Moises, a father who’s been deported to Mexico. While trying to travel back across the border with a truck full of migrant workers, car trouble strands him and the others in a more dangerous part of the desert than they originally planned to traverse. There’s been talk of another group who met their untimely end out here. Some think it was drug related. It was not. That’s where Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) comes in. With his trusty dog Tracker, persistent stubble and a garish Afghan scarf meant to make him look ex-military, Sam recreationally hunts and kills Mexican immigrants with a sniper rifle, cutting them off before they can make it into the country.

The set-up is straightforward and the execution is more than a little blunt. But Desierto is nonetheless a powerful, timely exercise in stomach churning suspense. Clocking in under an hour and a half, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, instead wringing maximum dramatic effect from its premise, leaving a juiced out husk as the credits roll. The film doesn’t leave you much to ponder so much as force you to confront the social narrative surrounding immigration through a more visceral lens. It flattens out edges that might have led to a more nuanced picture, but the two lead performances are so rich, it’s hard to care what little they’re in service to.

Setting aside that a jingoistic serial killer is named “Sam”, Jeffrey Dean Morgan has given life to one of the more iconic monsters in recent film memory. There’s a kinship between his Sam and the sterling work Kurt Russell did in Death Proof as Stuntman Mike. Both embody a bygone definition of masculinity, aged past their individual peaks, skin showing bruises and wrinkles where sinew and swagger once proudly resided. Sam is characterized as much by impotence as Stuntman Mike was, but the added layer of self-righteousness makes him even more horrifying.

There’s a hokiness to his self-delusion that calls to mind oddball Alex Jones of “Info Wars,” as humorous as it is discomfiting. Quentin Tarantino was inspired in recontextualizing the cinematic myth of stuntmen for his smash mouth rape allegory, but his villain was one crouched in enough artifice to shield a measure of the horror. Cuarón has created a much scarier antagonist in Sam, because there are a lot more Sams in the world than Mikes, and the only difference is most of them aren’t as charming as Morgan is in the role.

As Moises, Bernal utilizes the same understated charisma and innate vulnerability that’s buoyed his entire career. Initially, Moises comes off a little like a Final Girl, typified by a measure of purity and willingness to protect others that marks him as a future survivor. But the more the film progresses, the clearer it becomes that he’s a flawed hero, doggedly driven to prove the mother of his child wrong about him. There’s a moment late in the second act when he leaves a wounded Adela (Alondra Hidalgo) slumped next to a cactus. She’s certain she’ll die, either from the bullet wound in her arm or a closing shot from Sam. “He’ll kill me,” she says, to which Moises responds, “He’ll kill me too, and I have a son” before leaving her a jug of water and considerably less faith in her fellow man.

It’s a welcome wrinkle in his character profile, as the film up to that point makes little effort to transcend its position as the world’s most woke reimagining of The Most Dangerous Game. But what Desierto lacks in measured social commentary, it more than makes up for in a pulpy fright. Much of that can be attributed to Woodkid’s terse score, alternating between unsettling tension and a pop art approach to horror composition. Every time Sam’s theme burbles through the speakers, you stop pondering the very real fears that motivated the writing of this film and get caught up on the more comforting scares this genre delivers.

The film’s central conflict may be between Moises and Sam, but the internal push and pull is more pressing. Between what we know and fear about the current political climate and what we feel in our guts when we experience a thrilling movie. Cuarón relies on the deliberate execution of tropes to leave the viewer in a queasy state between fact and fiction, reality and cinema. The first deaths in the film are treated conventionally, as slasher flick fodder to set up the oncoming threat. Late in the film the movie pauses for an emotional beat with Sam and his own melodramatic horror.

At a recent Q&A promoting the film, Cuarón said that in every screening of the film he’d sat in, audiences audibly reacted more genuinely to the death of an animal than any of the fallen Mexicans Sam killed. Desierto unfolds with such reliability, a perfunctory approach to getting audiences to sit on the edge of their seat, that it successfully divorces them from their thornier feelings on immigration. That is, until the artifice has drawn to a close and they’ve left the theater.

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