"Desierto" is old fashioned in the worst way and new fashioned in the most obvious way. Its story is simple and reminiscent of Steven Spielberg's "Duel'' or Cornel Wilde's "The Naked Prey,'' with unarmed humanity finding itself hunted by a powerful and seemingly unconquerable outside force. But this time there's a political message, directly related to illegal immigration.
This kind of film – depicting nice, defenseless people trying to survive, while some lunatic is trying to kill them – is, to some degree, sure-fire. There's definitely a rooting interest, and there are moments of genuine tension. Perhaps the idea of linking this hard-to-beat formula to a political agenda seemed like a way to breath new life into the genre. Instead, it just seems obvious and, despite the idealistic intent, cynical.
The film was directed and co-written by Jonas Cuaron, the son of "Gravity'' director Alfonso Cuaron. It begins with a small band of impoverished Mexicans riding in the back of a truck through the desert. The truck breaks down in the worst possible area -- it's just bleached-out nothing for miles -- and the people have no choice but to keep going, by foot, across the badlands and into the United States. But guess what's waiting for them? It is, of course, a nasty, horrible American (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), with a truck, a dog and a big rifle. The dog is named Tracker, because of his ability to follow a trail and locate people, and the horrible American is named Sam, which means that if he were someone's uncle, he'd be Uncle Sam. Sam's sport is to kill people as they make their way across the desert. In an early scene, we see him wipe out about eight or nine luckless individuals, while firing from a distance. Afterward, he goes back into his car, whoops it up and smacks his steering wheel, barely unable to contain his excitement and pent-up energy.
One witness to the slaughter is Moises (Gael Garcia Bernal), who is leading another group of people into the United States. When the evil Sam gets wind of Moises and this second group, he goes on the hunt again, and the question becomes, how will these people escape? And how will they take the battle to Sam, who is armed and has a killer dog (literally), while they have nothing?
"Desierto'' is all very basic, coarse entertainment, reasonably satisfying, but the patina of high-mindedness doesn't make it better. It makes it worse. So does the scene of Sam muttering passionately about people invading his "home." Such dialogue isn't psychologically perceptive, just canned and predictable. The attempt to get into the head of this guy is perfunctory, with dialogue that's like a first bad guess.
I suppose some people might see ``Desierto'' as an antidote to anti-immigrant hysteria and to some of the vindictiveness that has characterized this election season. But recognizing that Sam is a horrible villain doesn't preclude seeing the practical necessity of borders. As an action movie, "Desierto'" is a middling, respectable effort. As a political tract, it's emotional and without thought. And taken together, it's easy to skip.
Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic.
2 star out of 4 stars
Starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Alondra Hidalgo. Directed by Jonas Cuaron. (R. 94 minutes.)