‘Desierto’: A stark thriller on the border

(L-r) Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Gael Garcia Bernal in "Desierto." STX Entertainment

“Desierto” is a stark, economical thriller. Its conflict is elemental and the characters are defined with bold strokes.

Director Jonás Cuarón, the son of acclaimed filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, draws from the primal motives of “Gravity.” (He wrote that screenplay with his father.) Instead of science fiction, however, this earthbound tale has a poignant political message – and not a subtle one.

A truck passes through the desert. In it, Moises (Gael García Bernal) and about a dozen other men and women are trying to cross the border into the United States. The van breaks down, so they are forced to continue on foot.

On the American side, Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) hunts rabbits with his dog and a high-powered rifle. Illegal immigrants frustrate Sam – we know he reported tracks to the indifferent authorities – so when Sam spots the small band of border crossers, he takes matters into his own hands. He shoots them dead, one by one, but Moises and a few others escape.

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The film is a sustained cat-and-mouse chase, with helpless innocents trying to avoid their inhumane pursuer. “Desierto” gives equal time to Moises and Sam, establishing just enough back story so we can understand who they are.

Sam is not just a deplorable villain, but a broken man who uses his victims as an outlet for misguided rage. Moises is not just an illegal immigrant, but a thoughtful father whose empathy is constantly challenged. The chase is exhausting, almost as if the desert is a character in the film, and yet there are dialogue-driven moments in which the heroes and villain evolve from caricatures to people.

Cuarón’s larger point – one that he pursues with every frame – is that border crossers deserve our sympathy. They have dreams, flaws and feelings. Sam only sees them from a distance. (There are many shots of him peering through the scope of his rifle.)

The act of killing invigorates Sam: In a chilling scene, he laughs to himself after hitting his targets, shouting that this land is his. His entitlement is a contrast to the desperation of the victims, who seek only opportunity. All the actors, including Morgan, find nuance despite the simple, stripped-down requirements of the script by Cuarón and Mateo Garcia.

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There are no surprises in “Desierto.” Every interaction, no matter how brutal, plays out exactly as you might suspect. Moises proves himself resourceful, outsmarting Sam during a pivotal scene, and the final confrontation is more poignant than vengeful. But the utter lack of surprise is not a bad thing, exactly, since awaiting the inevitable is its own kind of breathless suspense.

Even if a beautiful and impenetrable wall was built on the border, people like Moises – decent and frightened – would find a way here because, sometimes, the promise of a better life is worth it.

Three stars. Rated R. Contains strong language and violence. In English and Spanish with subtitles. 94 minutes.

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Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.