The late American journalist and fiction writer Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” has proven to have one of the most durable plots in all of fiction.
A 1924 short story also known as “The Hounds of Zaroff,” is about a man who makes sport of hunting other humans. There are almost too many filmed versions of it over the past century to count, starring everyone from Fay Wray to Ice-T (“Surviving the Game,”), Richard Widmark (“Run for the Sun”) to Andy Griffith (“Savages,” based on a Robb White novel inspired by “Most Dangerous Game”).
As Connell, who also wrote “Meet John Doe,” is long dead and wasn’t named Disney, his story is “fair game” — ahem — for director/co-writer Jonas Cuaron, Son of Oscar winning director Alfonso (they shared writing credit for “Gravity”). Thus Cuaron’s “Desierto,” a lean desert thriller with immigration as its text and Connell’s story as its subtext.
It follows a truckload of illegal immigrants sneaking across the U.S. border in the desert Southwest. An embittered, hard-drinking, truck-driving, Confederate-flag-on-his-CB-radio-antenna “hunter” is hell bent on tracking them down.
As the unnamed killer, Jeffrey Dean Morgan doesn’t have a lot of lines. His dog, “Tracker,” is his only company. His one encounter with “government” is testy.
“I used to love this place,” he tells the dog. “It’s my HOME!”
Now, he mutters, “I hate it.”
His only satisfaction seems to be in doing what he figures the state or the Feds should be doing in his stead — stopping illegal migration with deadly force.
“Jesus Christ,” he mutters, pointing his long-range rifle at another target. “They just keep comin’!”
Gael Garcia Bernal is just one of the dozen or so men and women who stumble out of a broken down truck and follow their impatient coyote (smuggler) across barren salt flats.
“Los Estados Unidos es de esa manera,” he yells when the truck dies. “The United States is that way!” But he doesn’t tell them how far “that way.”
Bernal’s unnamed migrant carries a teddy bear and has a do-gooder streak. Some in their party are weak, some are unscrupulous. He struggles to keep the peace, to keep a teen girl (Alondra Hidalgo) from being exploited by her escort.
And then the shooting starts, and his quest becomes a matter of life or death.
Cuaron captures the desolate beauty of mesas, dry washes and the Seguro cactus that is the only green thing is this land. But the story he and co-writer Mateo Garcia tell is melodramatic and conventional.
How long will the fat and out of shape migrant in their group last? What has to happen to make the “game” a fairer one? When do the rattlesnakes make their appearance?
Morgan, covered in tattoos, is the leanest he’s ever been on the screen, here. The lack of dialogue is the only thing that removes racial slurs from his vocabulary. He’s not some mustache-twirling “sportsman” murdering for fun. He’s wrapped up in the hunt, but never too busy to let the hate bubble through.
Bernal and Cuaron let us see the hero’s wheels turning, a desperate man reasoning his way out of a deadly jam with cunning and daring.
But the performances don’t keep us from realizing we’ve seen this story before — WAY too many times. Freighting the tale with a bloody satire of America’s immigration debate doesn’t change the basics — Mass murderer man with gun hunts people without guns.
And “Desierto” never amounts to much more than a variation on a theme we know by heart, predictable at every single sandy step they take.
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and language
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan,
Running time: 1:27