In placing us firmly on the side of a group of undocumented Mexican workers caught in the crosshairs of a psychotic American sniper, “Desierto” probably isn’t going to make Donald Trump’s top-10 list. If that weren’t recommendation enough, director Jonas Cuaron brings a swift, propulsive B-movie energy to his potent sophomore feature (after 2007’s “Year of the Nail”), a brutal and merciless chase thriller that makes no apologies for its political one-sidedness and visceral extremity: You’ve undoubtedly heard more nuanced arguments in defense of immigrant rights, but perhaps none delivered with such heart-pounding intensity. With Gael Garcia Bernal providing a firm rooting interest against a shotgun-toting, Confederate-flag-waving Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Cuaron’s lean, mean exploitation movie should satisfy enough of an arthouse-action-lovin’ niche to give it a fighting chance with the mainstream.
“Desierto” begins in a contemplative hush, as d.p. Damian Garcia forces the viewer to study the harsh, bone-dry landscape that will dominate the frame for the next 90 minutes. The sun bears down mercilessly on a truck carrying a hefty load of human cargo toward the U.S. border; when the vehicle breaks down without warning, the 14 Mexican migrants are forced to get out and continue their journey on foot, taking a shortcut through uncharted badlands. Our sympathies almost immediately attach themselves to a young migrant named Moises, and not just because he’s played by Bernal; he’s a natural leader who’s made this journey before, and he knows instinctively how to encourage his fellow travelers and keep them moving across the increasingly difficult terrain.
What Moises doesn’t bank on this time around is that not long after they cross the border, a bearded vigilante with the thematically unsubtle name of Sam (played by Morgan) will be lying in wait for them with a truck, a rifle and a dog named Tracker. He’s driven out to these badlands for no apparent reason other than some human target practice, and he proceeds to take out half the traveling party in a horrific, nerve-jangling sequence that leaves the desert floor covered with blood and bodies. Terrified, parched and exhausted, the remaining migrants try to escape notice, but it’s not long before Sam sees them and starts picking them off as well. Far better for them to be shot, however, than to come face to growling face with Tracker, who has been expertly trained in the art of chasing, lunging and sinking his teeth into his victims’ throats.
As simple and minimalist a survival thriller as “Gravity” (which Cuaron scripted with his father, Alfonso), “Desierto” operates on a level that is swift, primal and unrelenting. Sam doesn’t grant his prey much of a respite, and neither does Cuaron as he sends his camera hurtling after them — up steep slopes and down treacherous paths that require them to maintain their balance as well as their agility. Moment by moment, the director’s mastery of his terrain is as nimble as his sense of composition; sometimes the camera follows right alongside Moises and the others as they run, and sometimes it pulls back to dwarf them against their surroundings. (Some of the picture’s most pulse-quickening moments occur in deep-focus long shots, positioning Moises and friends in the foreground while Sam and Tracker suddenly, ominously pop into view behind them.) And the picture’s visceral kick is enhanced by its soundscape, vividly registering the party’s heavy panting and footfalls, the sickening thud of a body’s landing, and the hard pop of gunfire, though occasionally drowned out by a thunderously percussive score (by the French musician Yoann Lemoine, aka Woodkid).
With the survivors’ ranks dramatically dwindled in the second half, the momentum shifts ever so slightly. Nightfall provides a brief halftime break, and when the sun rises again, Moises must rely ever more on his wits and ingenuity — plus a few helpfully planted props — to gain the upper hand. Bernal, showing his natural magnetism yet also able to blend in with his lesser-known co-stars, convinces completely as an ordinary, good-hearted guy who’s able to stay consistently one step ahead of his hunters through shrewd instincts and dumb luck. And Morgan, seizing into the sort of meaty big-screen role that too rarely comes his way, takes a caricature of boozy redneck villainy and makes him a persuasively ruthless, scary and, finally, rather pathetic figure.
In this sort of spare, action-is-character context, extensive backstory would have been more of an encumbrance than anything else; that we never really get to know any of the migrants gunned down early on is one of the movie’s more humane gestures. Pitched somewhere between genre movie and topical allegory, “Desierto” may put off many with its clean demarcations between good and evil, its ruthless manipulation of the viewer’s sympathies, and its implicit suggestion that there are indeed some self-styled patriots out there who might be tempted to get their sick kicks this way, with no fear that there will be any repercussions — except this time, there are. Cuaron’s movie may be an exaggerated nightmare vision of murderous xenophobia run amok, but the catharsis in this tale of survival and payback is undeniably real.