VOD film review: Desierto
Ivan Radford | On 24, Oct 2016
Director: Jonas Cuaron
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Watch Desierto online in the UK: Amazon Prime / BFI Player / iTunes / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
After co-writing Gravity, Jonas Cuaron brings us back down to Earth with a loud bump with Desierto. A film about Mexican immigrants trying to survive being hunted down on the US border, it couldn’t seem more different to the Oscar-winning sci-fi, but the two have a surprising amount in common.
On the one hand, they’re both survival thrillers. Where Sandra Bullock’s astronaut finds herself facing the challenge of staying alive in space, Desierto’s threat is the hostile desert, in which Moises (Gael Garcia Bernal) and others try to escape the sights of a sniper rifle in the hands of a right-wing American (Dean Morgan). But both prove Cuaron’s knack for combining genre flicks with heavier themes: here, the real villain is the intolerance of other people.
If it sounds heavy-handed, that’s the secret to Desierto’s brilliance: you’re never hit over the head with its pro-immigration stance. You’re simply left to run with it from the barrel of a gun. Yet that stripped-down simplicity makes the movie even more relevant: as news headlines remind us every day, the battle between migrants and natives is happening all over the world, which means that Desierto could almost be taking place anywhere.
Morgan and Bernal embrace that bare-bones approach with physical performances that carry a surprising emotional weight; Bernal’s panicked face, desperate to avoid death, is immediately engaging, while Morgan swaggers about like John Wayne in an anti-western, accompanied by a vicious dog. As the widescreen landscape, a frontier so idolised by the golden age of US cinema, turns into an unwelcome barrier, Cuaron’s immersive sound design and sweltering atmosphere make for an oppressive watch. The result is viscerally exciting and pulsatingly political. It may not be as high-profile as Gravity, but Desierto is every bit as gripping.
Desierto is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.