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Review: Current events extend the border thriller ‘Desierto’ beyond genre

A trailer for “Desierto,” starring Gael García Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.

Mexican filmmaker Jonás Cuarón is known for his collaborations with his father, Alfonso Cuarón, most notably on “Gravity.” But the immigration thriller “Desierto” is rooted firmly on the ground. He draws on familiar political issues to infuse the taut, action-packed tale with a simmering tension that reaches beyond the film.

A group of illegal immigrants from Mexico are en route to the United States in the back of a cargo truck when they run into engine trouble and have to hike the rest of the way through the sun-baked desert. Our hero is the empathetic mechanic Moises (Gael García Bernal), who soon finds himself on the wrong end of a rifle sight belonging to Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

A serial killer for all intents and purposes, Sam methodically picks off immigrants like deer, taking the role of border patrol into his own hands, shooting them sniper-style from atop dusty ridges, aided by his German shepherd, Tracker. A wall definitely isn’t enough for this guy.

He’s former military, telegraphed by his camo pants and use of jargon. His keffiyeh suggests a familiarity with the Middle East. Cuarón stops just short of a Trump bumper sticker on his truck. We get very little reason for his killing, aside from a few tossed off bon mots: “Welcome to the land of the free,” he snarls; he bellows, “This is my home!” in celebration of a kill. During a campfire lament, he complains about his “messed-up” brain to Tracker. Here is a man so broken by patriotism that he’s lost all of his humanity. Either that or he’s using patriotism as a veil for his own homicidal desires.

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The script is sparse, the only character back story we get is at night, when the hunter and the hunted rest for a few minutes, long enough to flesh out their reasons for being there in the desert. Moises has a son waiting for him, Sam is threatened by outsiders.

At 94 minutes, it’s tight and efficient, though exhausting and relentless — the characters are running through the desert almost all the time, and the sequences unfold in near real time. The cinematography is grounded, at eye level. You feel as if you are scrabbling among the rocks and boulders and cactuses along with the characters. There are some remarkable hand-held shots running behind and in front of the characters as they are shot down on the white-hot caked plain. A thrumming score that beats like an adrenaline-fueled heart propels the film forward.

“Desierto” is a generic thriller that happens to be wrapped in political packaging. That packaging is sometimes more interesting than the thrills themselves, but the film is bare enough to project what you want onto it. It seems that Cuarón was looking to flex his suspense muscles, and there are a few very good sequences of classic suspense thriller filmmaking, particularly a moment when a child’s electronic toy echoes throughout a silent canyon.

But the film descends into an endless game of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner pursuing each other across the desert, chasing each other around and around what seems to be the same rock. An apt metaphor for the current climate of political discourse.

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Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

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‘Desierto’

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

MPAA rating: R for strong violence and language

Playing: In general release

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