The border between the United States and Mexico is approximately 1,700 miles in length, stretching from the mouth of the Rio Grande at Brownsville, Texas, all the way to the Pacific shoreline at Imperial Beach, California. And much of it goes through some of the harshest and most forbidding land in the entire world, the Colorado and Sonoran deserts in California and Arizona. Each year, thousands of Mexicans cross that border into the U.S., oftentimes illegally but for very legitimate reasons: a better life, and to escape from the violence being caused by the drug cartels in their country. The journey they make is excruciatingly dangerous; and in the last couple of decades, the danger has been upped immeasurably, not by the drug cartels, nor even the U.S. Border Patrol, but by vigilantes who tend to pass themselves off as “patriots” or “Minutemen”. The latter aspect is what is given attention in director Jonas Cuaron’s film DESIERTO (Spanish for “desert”).
Cuaron, who with his brother Alfonso wrote the screenplay of the masterful 2013 science fiction movie Gravity, had directed a couple of short films (ANINGAAQ; THE SHOCK DOCTRINE) and one feature-length film (2007’s YEAR OF THE NAIL) before DESIERTO; and in taking on the subject matter here, he steps into a topic that has both human and political dimensions. Gael Garcia Bernal and Alondra Hidalgo are among a group of immigrants fleeing northward through the harsh Sonoran Desert when the truck they are in breaks down in salt flats, and the ride stops for them. Approximately a dozen of them walk through the desert in harsh 120-degree temperatures, and make it through the barbed-wire fence that marks where the border is. The only way for them is to continue towards the north. But not long after they cross, they are set upon by a gun-toting vigilante (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) with a very racist view who is determined that no Mexicans get across the border at least, not if he has anything to say about it. The viciousness Morgan displays is matched only by that of “Tracker”, his German shepherd dog who happens to be good at tracking the immigrants. All of them fall victim either to his long-range sniper rifle or “Tracker”, sometimes getting partially torn up in gruesome fashion. Only Bernal and Hidalgo manage to escape the initial gunfire; but when they try to steal Morgan’s truck, they too are wounded, and have to continue to flee on foot. At one point Hidalgo is so badly wounded that Bernal must leave her under a desiccated cactus with a supply of water while he tries to evade or stop Morgan.
With most of the dialogue in Spanish (and with sub-titles on the screen) and the fact that all of the actors, save for Morgan and Lew Temple, who plays a Border Patrol agent, are Mexican, DESIERTO can sometimes be a test to watch; and certainly the violence and language are extremely harsh. Beyond those things, Cuaron, a native of Mexico himself, also seems to take an arguably very slanted view of the situation by painting the Mexican immigrants as common people who, practically by force, are forced to make so dangerous and illegal a crossing of the frontier, and by making Morgan the right-wing vigilante villain of the piece. But given how much immigration at the U.S./Mexico border, illegal and otherwise, and the issue of drug cartels creating violent havoc on either side of that border has been a hot-button issue in American politics for decades, and certainly in the ultra-toxic environment of the 2016 presidential election, it probably shouldn’t be too surprising that Cuaron does indeed take the viewpoint that he does, especially given how often Mexicans have been made scapegoats in the U.S. media and by politicians, particularly by one Donald Trump. And even at that, there is no reason to believe that situations like the one depicted in DESIERTO have not happened for real on the border; they just don’t make it onto the news.
DESIERTO thanks to Cuaron’s direction and the desolate score by Woodkid, has a lot of similarities to the classic Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone westerns of the late 1960s and early 1970s in how it depicts the extreme harshness of the border country, with Bernal’s and Hidalgo’s performances being quite good and Morgan giving a very frightening performance in an arguably stereotypical vigilante role. While DESIERTO may not be an absolutely perfect film, or easy to watch, and could incite passions both pro and con on the issue of immigration at our southern border, in the end it is a human story about desperation and how what goes on at the border transcends political grandstanding and a perversion of human values.
Review by virek213