It’s clear from the opening seconds of Desierto that co-writer/director Jonás Cuarón has an immaculate gift for shot composition. Whether inherited from or taught by his father, Alfonso Cuarón (who crafted the masterful Gravity), almost every frame of Desierto is a work of art, a complex, moving painting with lush palate and an absolutely incredible depth of field.
The story, on the other hand, is significantly less sophisticated. Following a group of Mexicans hoping to cross the border into the U.S. after their truck breaks down just outside the badlands, Desierto follows the slasher movie equivalent of the Hero’s Journey outline perhaps a little too closely, but that’s not ultimately what holds it back. Hell, if you pitched me “beautifully photographed slasher movie set in the desert and focusing on a group trying to cross the border,” I’d be all over it. Throw in Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a desert-dwelling racist who goes out on the offensive, and it sounds like a perfect piece of genre trash.
Unfortunately, Desierto doesn’t have enough going for it to live up to its own ideals, and spends most of the last third limping to its conclusion after completely undoing the suspense and terror it spent close to an hour building.
While there are minor grievances throughout the first two acts, namely by the overly-stylized sound editing that manages to undercut the tension being built by Cuarón’s lens. In addition, Morgan’s character straddles just a bit too far on the cartoonish side, brandishing a Confederate Flag from one of the antennas on his truck. He’s racist, we get it.
That’s not to say that Morgan’s performance isn’t absolutely captivating, and he again proves he simply oozes charisma in any role he embodies. Aside from the commands he gives his dog, Tracker, and some fragmented musings to himself about being trapped in his personal hell, he has almost no real dialogue to work with. The fact that he’s able to do so here with very little material bodes well for the upcoming seventh season of The Walking Dead, a show known for it’s terrible dialogue and characterizations, but goddamn he will make the perfect Negan.
What really does in Desierto is the fact that it simply catches up with itself a little too quickly. After laying down a paint-by-numbers slasher movie setup (the scummy guy creeps on the innocent girl, the slow kid can’t make it, the hero has a kid for built-in sympathy), it seems to awkwardly run out of places to go at the end of the second act. What results are a couple of far-fetched scenarios and an unnecessary costume change for its lead character, Moises, well-played by Gael García Bernal, who worked with the elder Cuarón in Y Tu Mama Tambien.
Despite its shortcomings, it’s an excellent showcase for the potential of Jonás Cuarón, who seems destined to make a significant impact on cinema. Just not with this film.