The inflammatory, politically charged film “Desierto” is nothing if not timely, and how I wish this wasn’t the case. It’s difficult to watch this film and not draw parallels to the hateful rhetoric that we’ve been hearing lately from some Americans, and it’s terrifying to think how some of these xenophobic rants could influence other crazies to take illegal immigration matters into their own hands. For that alone, “Desierto” comes across as more horror than thriller.
When a truck full of illegal immigrants breaks down near the Texas border, the group is forced to walk across a stretch of harsh desert known as the Badlands to make it to America. Unfortunately, a crazed madman vigilante has other plans and sets out to hunt the men and women in an effort to protect his country. What starts out as a quest for a better life quickly turns into a primal fight for survival. It’s a thought-provoking theme with a distinctive perspective on a timely, hot-button political issue.
This movie is far from subtle and is a polarizing, shocking, and unpleasant cat and mouse chase story. It’s a simple and unoriginal premise, and while it’s not complex in story, it’s certainly rich in visuals. The filmmaking here (from Jonás Cuarón, son of director Alfonso Cuarón), is incredibly skilled and expertly shot. There’s a devastating yet magnificent beauty to the visuals, and this is easily one of the most well directed films of the year. Cuarón captures a remarkable sense of place and a feeling of isolation and terror through the desolate desert landscape. The movie looks absolutely gorgeous in every frame.
It’s also well acted by its small cast, including leads Gael García Bernal (as a sympathetic, kindhearted father who is forced into survivalist mode), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (as the hunter), and Alondra Hidalgo (as an immigrant girl simply looking for a better life). The audience isn’t given much of a backstory to any of these characters, which I view as a huge strength because it makes them all feel even more anonymous. It’s an interesting, effective choice that gives the film’s message and even greater power.
Take Morgan’s character Sam, a lonely, psychotic, gun-wielding desert rat with a loyal, ferocious canine buddy named Tracker (warning: it doesn’t end well for the dog). You have to read between the lines to see that Sam’s ex-military and understand his motivations. He firmly believes that he’s protecting his country and doing his duty by hunting down illegal immigrants.
As each Mexican is gunned down and picked off one by one, it’s hard not to care and be horrified. (Everyone would be horrified by this, right)? The film makes this point, and it’s scary to think that yes, there probably are some folks who wouldn’t see these immigrants as people. That in itself is the most terrifying thing about this thriller. It’s a sad but timely commentary on the state of our country, and this film boldly and brazenly calls out the rabid anti-immigrant sentiment that’s disgustingly prevalent among some very small-minded and deplorable Americans.
The film quickly turns into a run-of-the-mill chase film, a sort of gruesome bloodbath and psychological horror film with a blistering political message. It’s brutal both in plot and visuals, filled with very graphic and highly disturbing, gory, violent content — including unspeakable cruelty towards humans and animals. I had to shut my eyes several times because it was too much to take, but shutting your eyes to avoid watching a bloody scene is a lot different than shutting your eyes to the racism in the world. For that, “Desierto” is a sweeping piece of social commentary with a vital message.
Matt was unavailable for review.