Until President Trump builds his white elephant of a wall, the US/Mexico border will remain a porous line in the sand. But for now, fine upstanding Americans like Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s booze swilling, confederate flag waving, one-man border patrol will have to step into the breach, armed only with a hunting dog, rifle and chilling disregard for human life. Jonás Cuarón’s tense thriller pits Morgan against a small group of migrants led by the indomitable Gael García Bernal, taking them on a brutal chase across baking rock and dirt.
The plot is stripped down to basics and all the better for it. A group of migrants set out for the border and are forced onto a more dangerous route when their van breaks down. There Sam (Morgan) sets upon them, blasting away with abandon before taking the fight into rock formations to sweep up the remainder.
Character development is certainly not the name of the game. Cuarón, who also produces, edits and co-writes, might as well have dressed his leads in white and black. Bernal’s plucky mechanic Moises has plenty of opportunity to show his worth. He steps in to protect a fellow traveller from sexual abuse, and drops to the back of their desert convoy to gee up an exhausted compadre. He’s not quite of the leave no man behind variety, but he’s not far off.Sam is the polar opposite, and just as crudely drawn. This is a guy who named the dog he uses to track Mexicans, Tracker. As his only companion, it’s to his dog he rants about protecting his land. Every time he returns to his dusty truck, he swigs alcohol and mutters. He’s exactly the kind of person any respectable Government would keep away from firearms. Naturally, Sam carts around a high powered rifle with hunting scope.
As a minimalist action thriller, it’s highly effective. Dialogue all but removed, a pattern develops whereby Tracker terrorises the remaining migrants into hiding and Sam picks them off when they stick so much as a finger above the precipice. It’s all very reminiscent of 80s b-movie action, Sam trapped in a cycle of taking aim only to watch his targets dip out of sight. He then moves forward and the process repeats with only the occasional variation.
Extra weight is jettisoned as the film progresses. The end is simply an intense, silent chase across giant rocks, one person slipping away just as the other rounds the bend. In these moments, when Desierto makes no efforts to engage the brain, focussing instead on gut reaction, it’s almost perfect. It’s the details that bring it down, every addition scoffingly poor. It doesn’t really matter. Chances are by the time anyone realises, they’ll be too shaken to care.