Mexploitation at the Roxie

  • by Erin Blackwell
  • Wednesday May 24, 2017
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Gael Garcia Bernal in a scene from director Jonas Cuaron's "Desierto."
Gael Garcia Bernal in a scene from director Jonas Cuaron's "Desierto."

Current events sometimes provide Hollywood the fodder for films that can be promoted on the basis of their political relevance. Usually, by the time Hollywood's through with them, current events have lost all their grit and significance, having been ground down to a fine paste and extruded through a genre with its own rules, track record, and budgetary constraints. So it is that the people risking their lives to cross the Mexican border illegally and the vigilantes with guns trying to stop them have inspired the flimsy Mexploitation mass-murder flick "Desierto" (2015), which plays the Roxie on Sunday, May 28.

If the idea of a man with a high-powered rifle and scope picking off unarmed stragglers in the desert turns you on, this is your movie. You only have to wait about 25 minutes before the meticulously bearded and unconvincingly loco Jeffrey Dean Morgan starts blasting away at a line of wannabe immigrants with backpacks. Each death is nameless, meaningless, and delivers a juicy red-paint burst from the abdomen. Who this psycho is and why he's hunting humans is never gone into. That would require actual script work. All the filmmaker wants you to know is that the innocent victims speak Mexican, and the evil marksman speaks American.

The bitter white guy has his best friend, a German shepherd named Tracker, riding shotgun in his trusty, rusty truck. He drinks Jack Daniels from the bottle, smokes hand-rolled cigarettes, and knows how to shoot, skin, and roast a rabbit over a campfire. A handy guy to know, you might think, but not one you'd want on your tail when you're trying to sneak into the USA undocumented. A small Confederate flag flies from his truck's antenna, an inflammatory touch indicative of "Desierto"'s superficial rendering of a long, drawn-out political game.

After picking off a dozen pilgrims, the Yanqui desperado meets his nemesis. Gael Garcia Bernal is a cute, sinewy, goateed charmer quickly distinguished from his fellow trekkers by the teddy bear his son entrusted to him, his ability to diagnose a stalled truck in five seconds flat, and his unwavering compassion for those unfortunate enough to be female or fat. Our hero is as old as melodrama itself but headed back to Oakland, where he'd been intending to apply for a residential visa when he was pulled over for a broken light. That is as deep into the issue as the screenplay is willing to go.

At 82 minutes, "Desierto" only achieves near-feature length by padding a thin concept with endless shots of actors scrambling for their lives around, through, and over rocks, dead trees, cactus, pebbles, scrub, and rattlesnakes, against distant hills beneath a cloudless sky, accompanied by menacing chords and nerve-rattling percussion. The script is a handful of plot points, the set is wide-open desert and a barbed-wire fence, the cast mostly expendable extras. This is a two-man show with a young female third wheel thrown in to give the hero a weaker vessel to protect.

"Desierto" was released two years ago, long before anyone knew Donald Trump and his wall were going to constitute a national nightmare. Director, co-writer, and producer Jonas Cuaron nonetheless concocted a thin sliver of agitprop every bit as nuanced as Trump's ridiculously xenophobic grandstanding. They deserve each other. This film isn't interested in the human condition, only stereotypes, festival screenings, and DVD sales. There's no story here, only a one-sided shoot-em-up as callous as a video game. Hollywood has always been cynical, but "Desierto" distinguishes itself by its indifference to the dilemma it depicts.