Stark ‘Desierto’ is a throwback to a simpler style of thriller

Take away its racially and politically charged overtones and “Desierto” really isn’t all that different from this summer’s surprise hit “The Shallows.”

That is, once you swap out the shark for a racist, psychopathic Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Blake Lively in a barely there bikini for a fully clothed Gael Garcia Bernal.

Directed and co-written by Jonas Cuaron, who wrote the Oscar-winning “Gravity” with his father, director Alfonso Cuaron, “Desierto” strands its characters in a similarly hostile environment: the badlands along the U.S.-Mexican border.

A truckload of migrants are making their way across the desert when engine trouble forces them to walk much farther toward a far more dangerous crossing point than they intended. The group’s leader, Lobo (Marco Perez), isn’t one to linger, so he quickly leaves a handful of the slower men and women behind.

About that time, a Minuteman-type (Morgan, “The Walking Dead’s” Negan) confronts a Border Patrol agent about a call he made reporting “illegal immigrant tracks about four klicks back.” When he learns nothing has been done about this injustice, the combat-ready head case (he’s called Sam in the press notes) heads off in his truck with its “Don’t Tread on Me” sticker and Confederate flag to take care of the problem himself.

With his trusted dog, Tracker, he quickly finds the migrants, pulls out his rifle and cuts Lobo and the first group to shreds. “Welcome to the land of the free,” he practically spits. Then it’s back to his truck for a swig of Jack Daniel’s and an excited whoop like he just hit the Powerball.

 

But Sam isn’t done. Having spotted the slower group, now led by Bernal (Moises in the press notes), Sam and Tracker camp out to resume their killing spree by the light of day.

With the exception of Lobo and Tracker, “Desierto” doesn’t go out of its way to identify its characters. So aside from Moises, the last survivors include, oh, let’s call them Wheezy, Gropey and The Girl, whose parents hired Gropey to watch over her during the crossing.

With its near complete lack of character names and development — the only thing we really learn about any of them is that Moises is trying to get back to his son in Oakland, where he’d already filed paperwork to stay when a broken headlight got him deported — “Desierto” makes the case that this could be happening to anyone. But it also makes it difficult to invest in them as Sam, and especially Tracker, relentlessly hunts Moises and the others across the unforgiving, rocky terrain in 120-degree heat.

But the bulk of “Desierto” is just Moises and Sam scrambling over rocks as Moises searches for a way out of the madness. And it feels padded even at just 87 minutes.

Don’t be swayed by the fact that it was Mexico’s submission as best foreign language film (it’s in English and Spanish with subtitles) at the 89th Academy Awards. “Desierto” is nearly as stark as its surroundings, a relatively minor throwback to a simpler style of thriller filmmaking a la Steven Spielberg’s “Duel,” Rutger Hauer in “The Hitcher” and, yes, “The Shallows.”

Minus Blake Lively in that bikini.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com. On Twitter: @life_onthecouch.

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