Had Jonás Cuarón's "Desierto" made its debut a few years ago, it probably would've left some audiences careless with the complaints that its villain is too cartoonish, that the film isn't subtle enough and that such things could never happen. But seeing "Desierto" in 2016, at the same time that a person like Donald Trump could possibly be elected, brings about a wildly different reaction.
"Desierto" is an uncomplicated movie. It opens with a gorgeous stationary shot of a salt flat south of the United States border. The sun slowly rises above the hills, bathing the once-dark dessert in a blood orange-colored light. As the sun emerges, an ant-sized truck drives across the flat in the distance. The shot lasts quite a long time, long enough for the truck to make it from one side of the screen and disappear across the other side. It gives a sense of scale and makes it clear that this journey will be long and difficult.
The truck is filled with immigrants entering the country illegally. It's driven by three people smugglers, usually referred to as "coyotes." It's inevitable that something will go wrong, and it does; the truck breaks down before reaching its desired destination. Moises, one of the immigrants (Gael Garcia Bernal), is a mechanic, so he takes a look at the truck and diagnoses it as unfixable. The coyotes are offered a bonus if they will take the immigrants on foot from the current location, so rather than wait for a tow truck, they begin the difficult journey.
The film cuts to Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who's driving his pickup truck across the desert to hunt rabbits, accompanied by his aptly named dog, Tracker. Sam is stopped by a border patrol agent after his hunt and asks if any officers had looked into tracks he reported from immigrants crossing the border. He can barely contain his rage when the man admits that they haven't looked into it. Sam's characterization is blunt and obvious. He has a confederate flag attached to his car's antenna and a Gadsden flag sticker on his window. Rather than water, he mostly sips on a bottle of whiskey in the desert heat. It seems like he might not own much more than his truck and his dog. And his rifle.
After his encounter with the border patrol, Sam comes across the immigrants as they are just crossing the border. Without hesitation, he pulls out his rifle and begins to gun them down, one by one. They're in a wide-open area with nowhere to hide.
There's a sickening look of glee on Sam's face as he begins to kill the immigrants. After dispensing with the first batch he even utters, "Welcome to the land of the free," a bit of over-the-top dialogue that would have sunk this movie in any other year. But "Desierto" has come into existence in a climate where one of the two choices for our next president openly despises people of Mexican heritage. Someone like Sam doesn't seem like a psychopathic outlier anymore, but more a logical extension of the current climate. Like many of those who openly fear illegal immigration, it's not clear that the people entering the United States illegally would actually have any effect on Sam; he doesn't appear to have any job that could be taken by someone else. Instead, he's driven by racism and a fear of outsiders. "He's a manifestation of the horror of hate speech," said Bernal in a recent interview. "He is the monster in the equation of how migration is being talked about. The monster is the hate narrative that exists."
The film doesn't waste much time with characterization—aside from Bernal, the only other Mexican who has much of a chance to speak is Adela (Alondra Hidalgo). But this is less of a failing when considering the mindset of Sam and other disaffected members of the far right. He has no empathy for the people he targets, and certainly no desire to learn anything about them. The film is undoubtedly influenced by "The Most Dangerous Game," in which another psychopathic man hunts people who have been shipwrecked on his island. The villain of that film was a product of fantasy, but Sam is very much of this time and place.
As a work of exploitation, "Desierto" is unflinching. It's brutal, and at times gruesome. There's a moment of violence toward an animal that turned my stomach and made me seriously consider walking out of the theater, not as a form of protest, but just as a respite from the movie's grim nature. But it was necessary to stay. This slaughter of immigrants was fictional, but those entering the country illegally still face violence at every turn.
Nothing about "Desierto" is subtle—the movie shouts its message into your ear throughout the whole film; but it's necessary. The most frightening thing about the film is how it will be received by certain audiences. Some people will walk out of the theater and think "maybe Sam was right."
Watch the trailer below:
Reach Staff Reporter Brian Marks here.