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‘Desierto’ Review: Gael Garcia Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan Have a Clichéd Border Battle

”Gravity“ co-writer Jonás Cuarón goes heavy on tired action movie tropes and light on ideas in Mexico’s Oscar entry

The concept was probably inevitable: A chase thriller set on the U.S.-Mexico border pitting a murderous self-styled patriot and a pair of desperate would-be immigrants. Given Donald Trump’s incessant prattling about building a wall, “Desierto” feels nothing if not timely.

Topicality may be its greatest asset. If only it had some substance beyond bullets, blood and guts. Director Jonás Cuarón (who co-wrote “Gravity” with his father Alfonso Cuarón) has fashioned a relentless, one-note thriller with some edge-of-the-seat tension. Cuarón’s tale of a madman Minuteman is well-shot and sharply paced, but too simplistic. What had the potential to be a truly intriguing film ends up essentially a cat-and-mouse game, a deadly chase set among the saguaros. Think “The Cacti Have Eyes.”

Lack of character development is a big problem. Gael García Bernal plays Moises, an undocumented worker with training as a mechanic. He hopes to cross the border to reunite with his young son in Oakland, and that’s all we know about him. An engaging actor, Bernal proves himself plenty capable of action-hero status. He’s convincing in the role of a good-hearted and fast-thinking father bent on survival. If only we knew more about him when he’s not running from a madman with heavy artillery.

Moises is one of several migrants bound for the United States when their truck breaks down on a desert road. The group is forced to set out on foot, with a vague idea of which way leads to the border. Their timing is particularly inopportune. Just as they set out on their arduous trek through unforgiving desert terrain, a psychotic vigilante named Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has decided to go on a hunting spree. And though he does kill a desert hare or two, he is no sportsman. His prey are two-legged, Spanish-speaking and brown-skinned.

The choice of Morgan in this role ranks among the poorest casting decisions in recent memory. He’s too dashing to be credible as a maniacal killer, with “American Sniper”-style marksman skills. His stylish clothes, particularly his fashionably-tied neck scarf, just don’t scream redneck vigilante or psycho-killer. He may have slightly crazy eyes, but mostly he looks like a loose-limbed movie star.

But best actor honors could go to his ferocious pooch, Tracker, a German Shepherd who’s easily the screen’s most bloodthirsty dog since Cujo. He’s also amazingly fleet of foot and unrelenting; his brutal attacks look gruesomely convincing.

Beyond Morgan’s questionable casting, there’s the question of his character’s motivations. He drinks whiskey and whoops after shooting several people and yowls: “It’s my home!” Just how did he become a deranged racist murderer? Did something happen to him? Why does he despise Mexicans so much that he delights in killing off at least a dozen, perched behind a boulder, picking them off from afar? Was he trained somewhere — the military, an elite police unit? And what about that killer dog of his? Some sense of his twisted psyche and origins would have improved the story and could have made it more terrifying.

Essentially this is a story of survival for Moises and Adela (Alondra Hidalgo), a young woman who is equally determined to outwit the vicious Sam and to elude Tracker. All we know about Adela is that her parents wanted to protect her from the dangerous drug cartels in her town, so they send her off to the U.S. for a better life. The film definitely could have used more narrative structure and subtext. It’s too bad the characters feel more like types than real people.

Some action sequences are compelling, in particular a mano-a-mano cliffside climactic fight between Moises and Sam. And the bleak, bone-dry locations are striking. The unremitting harshness of the desert, captured artfully by cinematographer Damian Garcia (“Güeros”), ramps up the harrowing quotient.

“Welcome to the land of the free,” the redneck Sam (as in Uncle) snarls early on. He drives a truck with a Confederate flag and a bumper sticker that proclaims “Don’t Tread on Me.” We get it. Audiences could use a latter-day “El Norte,” a powerful film about the complexity of immigration. That’s not to say that all films about migrants need to be nuanced, moving and dramatic, but they should offer more than perilous chases, horrific villains and whizzing bullets.

The hot-button issue of immigration and the desolate setting are the film’s biggest assets. But the actual content of “Desierto” feels as familiar and generic as the obligatory country music blaring from Sam’s truck.

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