You can run but you can't hide in 'Desierto' (R)

Mexican filmmaker Jonás Cuarón is known for his collaborations with his father, Alfonso Cuarón, most notably on “Gravity.” But the immigration thriller “Desierto” is rooted firmly on the ground. 

A group of illegal immigrants from Mexico are en route to the United States in the back of a cargo truck when they run into engine trouble and have to hike the rest of the way through the sun-baked desert. Our hero is the empathetic mechanic Moises (Gael Garcia Bernal), who soon finds himself on the wrong end of a rifle sight belonging to Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

Sam, a serial killer for all intents and purposes, methodically picks off the immigrants like deer, taking the role of border patrol into his own hands, shooting them sniper style from atop dusty ridges, aided by his German shepherd, Tracker. A wall definitely isn’t enough for this guy. Cuarón stops just short of a Trump bumper sticker on his truck

The script is sparse, the only character backstory we get is at night, when the hunter and the hunted rest for a few minutes, long enough to flesh out their reasons for being there in the desert. Moises has a son waiting for him; Sam is threatened by outsiders.

At 94 minutes, it’s tight and efficient, though exhausting and relentless — the characters are running through the desert almost all the time, and the sequences unfold in near real time. The cinematography is grounded, at eye level. You feel as if you are scrabbling among the rocks and boulders and cacti along with the characters. 

“Desierto” is a generic thriller that just so happens to be wrapped in political packaging. That packaging is sometimes more interesting than the thrills themselves, but the film is bare enough to project what you want onto it. It seems that Cuarón was looking to flex his suspense muscles, and there are a few very good sequences of classic suspense thriller filmmaking. The movie descends into an endless game of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner pursuing each other throughout the desert, chasing each other around and around what seems to be the same rock. But what an apt metaphor for the current climate of political discourse.

Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Alondra Hidalgo.

Director: Jonás Cuarón.

Screenwriters: Jonás Cuarón, Mateo Garcia.

An STX Entertainment release. Running time: 94 minutes. Vulgar language, strong violence. In Miami-Dade: Aventura, Dolphin.

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