We have all heard the tales that happen at the border. Regardless of the skew of these stories, or if you think illegal immigrants are coming to take your jobs, the lack of humanity behind them should affect you. The Cuarón brothers bring you another tale of survival, but with none of the visual splendor of Gravity. Desierto focuses on a group of people being treated like they are less than human.
Desierto is as barren as the terrain it takes place in. Director/co-writer Jonás Cuarón knows this isn’t the visual juggernaut that his previous film Gravity was and he openly embraces it. He uses the harsh and unforgiving environment of the desert to emphasize the gravity of Moises’ (Gael García Bernal) situation. Aside from the obvious threat, there are also unseen ones just waiting to spring out on him. Cuarón keeps every other element of the film as barebone as possible so it doesn’t detract from the intensity of the film or from its important message.
There are many nameless people that pass through the border, each with similar stories and a similar goal. They want to come to America, not to steal any resources or become dependent on government handouts, but to work. It’s a tale as old as the founding of the United States, and the story, while generic, is told with honesty. My grandpa was one of those illegal immigrants who came to this country and he told me about the near-death experience that was crossing the border. Back then, the dangers were mostly environmental, like we saw in Desierto. Today, they are Trump-fueled acts of homicide hiding behind toxic patriotism.
Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is meant to embody our country’s growing xenophobia. His single-minded pursuit is not for any legitimate reason other than to feed some misdirected, murderous anger. His views become blatant when we see that he has more sympathy for a dog than he does another human being. Cuarón shows a very real problem at the border with a growing number of American citizens taking up arms and creating their own unsanctioned militia. People like Sam, doing a job they weren’t trained or even asked to do are at the border treating people inhumanely only because the people crossing the border don’t have the rights Americans do. That is the bigger issue at stake here and one Cuarón won’t let you forget.
The real truth of this film is that we have seen it before, often done much better. We learn near nothing about the characters, so when they are slaughtered, the emotional impact is minimal. It is brutal and savage, but it doesn’t pack the gut-punch it could. What the film lacks in establishing empathy outside of the main character, it makes up for in creating a tense environment of survival. The main reason Cuarón doesn’t spend time giving us the backstory of every character is because they would all come off as the same. They all are risking their lives to reach America in hopes of providing a better life for their families. Another reason could be that in that moment where you are fighting for your life, none of that matters outside of your need to survive, possibly motivated by your reason for fighting to live.
Desierto is all built upon our knowledge of the situation at the border. For those who don’t know what is going on, this is an extreme, but accurate example of the way citizens are undermining the border patrol officers and taking matters into their own hands. The relationship between Moises and Sam is just one example of how these so-called vigilantes are treating illegal immigrants. Watching Bernal and Morgan play cat and mouse is what really makes this film memorable. Their performances are consistently great and they work with the minimal script they are given. This gives them a chance to channel some of their more primal instincts and use them to develop their characters. The film’s gruesome nature makes it hard to watch, but Desierto proves essential for those who are unaware of the state of our country, especially the effects someone like Trump has on these “patriotic” criminals.