"Welcome to the Land of the Free."

Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Walking Dead) made an unexpected transition from playing supporting characters and sensitive ghosts (Weeds, Grey’s Anatomy) to starring roles as ultra-macho bad guys. The turning point was his role as the Comedian, an amoral superhero, in Watchmen from 2009. In Desierto, he plays Sam, an extension of that man’s rotten soul. More than villainous, his sole purpose is to hunt Latinos to their death as they cross into the United States. Or as he puts it after gunning several of them down, “Welcome to the Land of the Free.” Sam also has a racist dog named Tracker who runs as fast as Krypto the Superdog. Together, they grimly pursue Gael García Bernal through the Baja Californian desert. But Sam isn’t really human — he’s merely a stand-in for all of America’s evil bigotry, and director Jonás Cuarón allows Morgan’s performance to devolve into campy histrionics. This central misconception of the antagonist empties the film of its pathos. Instead of going after our sympathies, Cuarón settles for making a demented gamer’s kill space. There is a stylistic parallel here with Breaking Bad‘s use of the desert to reflect a character’s spiritual desolation. But you’ll have to re-watch Alejandro Iñárritu’s Babel if you’re looking for a film to make the agony of that border crossing feel real.

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