Every once in a while, a film comes along that strikes at the heart of major issues we face in the real world. Such films, like the brilliantly made “12 Years a Slave” of 2013 and “Selma” of 2014, speak louder and wider because of their graceful handling and beautiful depiction of important triumphs of races being grossly discriminated against — which, in turn, denounces the deplorable and inhuman behavior of those doing the discriminating. While not quite reaching the same levels of filmmaking that those two films did, “Desierto” is an undeniable statement about the fears around a Donald Trump presidency.
The film picks up with Moises (Gael García Bernal) as he, Adela (Alondra Hidalgo) and others try to secretly cross the Mexico-U.S. border. After their truck breaks down, members of the group are forced to cross what is said to be a more dangerous area in terms of getting caught. Mere minutes after entering American territory, they encounter Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a delusional and sociopathic racist with a sniper and a goal to uphold the border by murdering everyone that crosses it.
“Desierto” places itself within the minimalistic horror genre — scarce dialogue and singular settings — clocking in at a brief 88 minutes. It’s essentially a chase film as not much happens outside of the group’s crossing and Sam’s terrifying pursuit. Due to the fact that the chase is essentially the whole film, there are points where nothing substantial happens for an excessive amount of time, leaving insufficient room to build character depth.
But many moments of nothingness are offset by striking imagery. The entire story takes place within a southwest U.S. desert and the visual facets of the setting are taken advantage of — stark cinematography and lighting are used to create palpable dread. Director Jonas Cuarón — the son of the Oscar-winning director of “Gravity,” Alfonso Cuarón — smartly juxtaposes these technical aspects with the setting to enhance the story.
And then there’s the obvious political subtext that bleeds through the lines. It’s hard to know if the specifics were on purpose, as “Desierto” likely began its pre-production in early 2015, but the subtext is undeniably evident and prevalent, especially under the horror genre. The hatred of the villain Sam is overwhelmingly similar to many of the sentiments that have surfaced in the ongoing election season. It becomes an even more sobering parallel to see Sam murder innocent people and say, “Welcome to the land of the free.”
The film offers many depressing realities. Another example is when we hear Adela reference her parents’ wish for her to escape the bad of her home and then have the group’s dire predicament — a tangible formation of the racism that so many Latinos encounter when migrating to America — be much, much worse.
Moises’ backstory — which is offered in only a few lines, but comments on the horribly unfair laws against immigrants already in the U.S. — and that wish by Adela’s parents represent what seems to be a major motivation for crossing: the wish for a better life, whether that be for oneself or one’s family. These are not rapists or killers. While it is true that these characters are illegally crossing, it is a severely inarguable fact that they should be treated as human beings and that the film’s situation is unimaginably far beyond anything that should ever happen. They are good people who are fighting with every last ounce of their spirits in pursuit of a better life.
The horror of “Desierto” works on two levels: the terrifying chase of the film and the correlation to the real world. As we watch Sam’s racist insanity, it’s hard not to think the utterly depressing thought that such a human being could be produced by fearmongering rhetoric. Is this the future we are heading toward?
The film posits an answer to that question. The conclusion promotes the idea that among horror and hatred, the human spirit will triumph. These characters can beat evil without stooping to the evil’s low, shown through their unbroken drive to take step after step toward their goal of betterment. While the filmmaking isn’t great, it’s the film’s message alongside the social relevancy that renders “Desierto” as an essential viewing.