It’s just apt that Desierto released in theaters today, a couple of days after the election of the POTUS, because this is a film that delves into the tricky conversation of immigrants arriving in the US and how xenophobes would not accept their arrival. The film is actually not so much a conversation as it is an unsubtle bludgeoning of narcissistic racism prevalent in the country, but it’s relevant and thrilling enough to keep you in your seats.
Desierto is co written and directed by Jonas Cuaron, the son of the legendary Alfonso Cuaron and the film plays out like a grounded version of Gravity. Instead of outer space the protagonist is stuck in a desert alone and is scrambling for survival with the persistent threat of death. In this case Moises (Gael Garcia Bernal) is a Mexican en route with a bunch of others to a desert that would get them quietly and illegally across the border to the US.
Once they reach the desert and begin crossing it, a man armed with a rifle named Sam (Jeffery Dean Morgan) begins shooting at them because he will not allow dirty Mexicans into his great and pure country. The film then is a tense chase through the punishing desert landscape as Moises scrambles for survival and Sam sprays bullets everywhere he can and even sets a dog after him.
The whole chase style of film-making is beautifully shot rendering the watch effective and thrilling, so if you’re looking for a no nonsense nerve-wracking movie Desierto fits the bill. Once Sam shows up in the film and his dog begins biting away chunks of throats it almost becomes a horror movie of sorts. The punishing, dry landscape of the desert is bruising to see, and Bernal does well to portray accurately how someone in his position would react and reach for desperate measures to survive.
Also frightening is the way the murders are committed with a cold single bullet rather than any contrived long drawn cinematic panache. Sam’s actions are redneck to an extreme but also indicate how little emotion he feels when ‘cures’ the problem he sees. If you’re into gore you won’t be disappointed either.
The only problem is that the film makes only superficial observations on the problem at hand. Moises himself is an unsubtly renamed Moses trying to lead his people to the Promised Land, and the wrath of the redneck is as nuanced as his rifle blast. There isn’t any actual discussion of why both camps have become the people that they are, and how this problem could be solved. It’s a headline news mined into an entertaining thriller, but devoid of actual commentary that could have made the project into something more memorable.
It’s also manipulative at times, the prime example being Moises’ reason to head to the US because he wants to be with his daughter and carries a teddy bear with him. It’s a total face off between the black and the white, a little bit of gray in the middle wouldn’t have hurt.