Set on the United States–Mexico border, Desierto tracks a group of illegal immigrants fighting for their lives against the harsh environment and an even more brutal vigilante and his German Shepherd.
Director of Photography:
Running time: 90 minutes
In Desierto, Jonás Cuarón’s evocative depiction of an illegal crossing at the United States–Mexico border, it is difficult to interpret the countless cacti scattered across the barren Arizona landscape as anything other than menacing middle fingers greeting the new arrivals to the country. Not only is this exhausting trek over a period of 36 hours grim, as is to be expected, but it has an aspect of horror thanks to the brutal vigilantism of an white-stubbled, wifebeater-wearing, Confederate flag–sporting gun-toter who has appointed himself and his German Shepherd the true anti-immigration task force.
Opening and closing on similar landscapes on either side of the infamous border, the film takes place entirely in the titular desert that connects the two countries. In so doing, it cuts out the backstories and integration that border-crossing films, from El Norte to Sin nombre, with many others in between, usually include for the sake of completeness. The always dependable Gael García Bernal takes the lead here as one of a dozen immigrants trying to cross into the United States and ultimately becomes the reluctant leader by virtue of determination, survival and luck.
After the small truck that was supposed to transport them breaks down, the group and their handlers walk across the border on foot but soon stare down the barrel of a gun when Sam (an ice-cold Jeffrey Dean Morgan despite the scorching heat) and his trusty dog, Tracker, find them and pick them off one by one. Moises (Bernal), who is lugging a teddy bear with and hopes to reconnect with his son in Oakland, accompanies the slowest at the back of the pack and thus ends up surviving the shoot-out, along with four others.
Cuarón uses his camera with great effect. While some may balk at two or three moments of extravagance (most notably, a fast backward tracking shot when someone is shot in the chest and the beautiful movement of the camera crossing a barb-wire border fence as it shows others doing the same), they never draw too much attention to themselves. Instead, they suggest a vibrant dynamism beneath the mostly desaturated landscape, and in the second example, there is an inherent identification with the immigrants’ journey and plight.
For the entire first half of the film, the focus is relentlessly on the forward movement of the immigrants. Unlike most other films in the genre, there is no small talk between the characters that would flesh out their stories and their reasons for making this perilous journey. Besides, it is a fair assumption to make that none of them would have risked their lives if they didn’t have good reason to do so. This approach towards the characters frees the director up to create significant tension by pitting life against death in almost every single scene.
In this way, we never feel like we are being fed information by a filmmaker but are instead witness to verisimilitudinous events. Unfortunately, the other half of the story, which concerns the half-drunk Sam, is handled with a little less care. Save an early altercation with a border protection officer, Sam never speaks to anyone, except his trusty canine companion (and/or himself). His one-sided conversations can feel a little contrived and ultimately serve little purpose beyond providing a mere outline of a character with a myopic vision of nationalism that is hostile to outsiders (“It’s my home!”), no matter who they are.
Another point on which Desierto scores less than full marks is a scene in the final act when a young woman comes face to face with a rattlesnake. This being Arizona, the encounter is not at all unexpected, but it is a surprise that the film waits so long before showing us a single snake – and then tries to make up for lost time by showing us an entire rhumba all at once.
Bernal is absolutely mesmerising as a young father taking a risk going on this journey but doing so in order to rejoin his family. His character, Moises, is thrust into a game of survival, and while he has to rely on instinct to stay alive, his kindness towards those around him – particularly those who need a helping hand – is evident throughout. Moises’s gentle humanity, coupled with the image and the meaning of the teddy bear, which introduces us to him in the opening scene, makes it easy for the viewer to root for him.
Over the decades, the hot-button issue of border crossings between the United States and Mexico has never really cooled down, and thus Desierto is as timely as ever, particularly given the rumblings from the Oval Office of the recently inaugurated 45th president of the United States. Cuarón, who has to be one of Mexico’s most accomplished young filmmakers, keeps his eye on the ball and seems to relish the challenge of working with a small cast and a single location, not unlike the experience of his director father, Alfonso, on Gravity. As was already apparent in the companion piece to the latter, the short film Aningaaq, Cuarón here again proves himself to be a talented storyteller dedicated to conveying very human stories in the most desolate environments.