The premise of “Desierto” is both topical and terrifying: Undocumented Mexican workers trying to slip across a desolate spot along the U.S. border find themselves the victims of a gunman who’s picking them off one by one.
It could make for pithy commentary on the issue of immigration as well as a tense exercise in suspense.
Unfortunately, “Desierto” falls short on both counts. It turns into a predictable cat-and-mouse game with one standout performance by the killer’s enthusiastically ride-or-die German shepherd.
Gael Garcia Bernal is Moises, a man trying to re-enter the U.S. to reunite with family in California. He’s one of several passengers in the back of a truck that breaks down in a part of the desert called “the badlands.” They hustle through the inhospitable terrain on foot, and that’s when they’re spied by lone vigilante Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his loyal attack dog, Tracker.
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The problem is that most of Moises’ compatriots are just fodder; we learn little about them. Their deaths are just an excuse to whittle the plot down to a two-man, mano-a-mano death match. (And why is it that Sam hits his target with scary accuracy when it’s a no-name cast member with few lines but has so much trouble shooting Moises?)
Sam should either be a faceless menace, like something from a horror movie, or someone for whom there’s some understanding of his murderous motives. As directed and written by “Gravity” writer Jonas Cuaron (Alfonso’s son), the character falls somewhere in a mushy middle. Sam just comes across as a cliched, gun-toting, angry-dog-owning nut job. (And we know, from this season’s “The Walking Dead,” that Morgan can be an ultra-creepy bad guy, but “Desierto” doesn’t make the most of him.)
Australian director Greg McLean dealt with a similar theme of one man’s crusading xenophobia and vigilantism in the middle of the desert with his outrageous Outback splatter films “Wolf Creek” and “Wolf Creek 2.” But Cuaron plays it straight and down the middle, and the result is underwhelming.
And, as wonderful and willing as Tracker is, he can’t carry the entire movie on his ferocious shoulders.
(At Cinemark Merriam.)
Rated R. Time: 1:34.