Published Sep 14, 2015Desierto was written, directed and produced by Jonás Cuarón, son of Alfonso. The pair previously collaborated on the screenplay for Gravity, and like that film, this one uses a sparse backdrop to tell a tense survival story. That said, don't expect the charming Clooney/Bullock banter of Gravity — there's little humour to be found in this visceral, violent thriller.
Gael García Bernal stars as Moises. Hoping to reconnect with his son in Oakland, he's a regular man hiding in the back of a truck with a bunch of other people seeking a better life in the United States. When their truck breaks down, they're forced to complete their illegal immigration by trudging through the desert badlands. As the illegals journey through the desert, eventually their group is split into two, and one party is significantly further ahead than the other. The first group walks through a wide, empty area as the others look on from a nearby cliff.
At this point Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a chain-smoking, drunk-driving, Confederate Flag-toting redneck who's sick of illegals encroaching on his freedoms, pulls up in his truck, sets up his hunting rifle and opens up fire on the group. What follows is nearly impossible to watch, as each gunshot piercing the ears sees another of the Mexican people die, graphically, one by one. Retreating from the scene and attempting to hide, Moises and his group are spotted by Tracker, Sam's dog, and the hunt continues.
Thanks in part to Donald Trump, the issue of illegal immigration is a key talking point in American politics right now. As such, Desierto becomes a politically charged film — but don't expect any nuance. Desierto is shot like a grisly horror movie, right down to the way that each character's various flaws determine when they're going to get picked off next.
That simplicity is clearly intentional, right down to the characters' on-the-nose names. Moises leads his people to freedom through the desert; Sam represents the ruthlessness of Uncle Sam patriotism ("Welcome to the land of the free," he utters after executing a man); Tracker is a near-unstoppable hunting force.
Hunted like prey because of bureaucratic minutiae bullshit (Moises, for example, was in the process of legal immigration when he was deported for a broken taillight), Desierto shows us what happens when extreme nationalism further dehumanizes people already struggling to get by. The result is a chilling, tense, violent thriller that doubles as a straightforward parable about racism and the human condition. (Esperanto Kino)