Desierto review — a tense horror that evokes life under President Trump

Jeffrey Dean Morgan in Desierto

Desierto isn’t a great film. Perhaps it’s not meant to be. The problem is it is directed by Jonás Cuarón, son of the Academy award winning director Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity). This brings with it a great amount of scrutiny that most first-time feature film directors don’t have to put up with. His native Mexico didn’t help in this matter by submitting the film as their entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Academy Awards.

The film opens with a shot of the sun rising above the Sonoran desert. You’re then quickly thrust into a cramped truckload full of Mexican migrants as they make their way from Mexico to the “Land of the free”. One of them is reading about Moses and the Israelites fleeing Egypt. Feeling this weight of expectation perhaps, junior Cuarón does at times pretend this film is more high-minded than it actually is, trying to draw parallels between the biblical exodus and what is essentially a B-movie horror. Gael García Bernal’s protagonist is even named Moises.

Before reaching the safer crossing point of Soto, the truck breaks down and the leader of the group, a people smuggler named Lobo (Marco Pérez), tells them they must make their own way across the “badlands”. This soon becomes a fight for survival when the defenceless men and women are chased across the desert by a merciless whiskey drinking, Confederate flag waving, rifle-toting redneck (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his aptly named dog Tracker.

Excised from the legacy of its director’s father, Desierto works as a perfectly functional, and at times incredibly tense, horror-thriller. Its characters aren’t particularly complex — most of them aren’t even named — but this doesn’t necessarily weaken the film’s premise, that of a racist American (named Sam no-less) who is determined to wipe out what he sees as vermin crossing the border from Mexico into America. In one of the film’s more poignant scenes, Sam is unmoved when he hears the taped recording of Moises’ son talking from a speaker within a teddy bear (which Moises had accidentally knocked in his rucksack). Sam simply sneers and tells Tracker “they ain’t going nowhere. We’ll get them in the morning”. To him they aren’t even human.

This is a horror film that evokes a dystopian America where Trumpian anti-immigrant hate-speech has led to a dehumanisation of the people making the crossing from Mexico to the United States, and where it has become permissible to hunt those people down and kill them like pests. It could well be the America led by President Trump, whose first comments on announcing his candidacy were levelled at Mexican migrants: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they’re telling us what we’re getting.”

Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays the character of Sam perfectly despite a sometimes questionable script. But then Morgan is captivating in any role — his natural charisma enough in itself to keep you glued to the screen (The Walking Dead chose the perfect actor for their current main antagonist Negan). Bernal is perfect as Moises, the almost pro-wrestling like babyface who must evade (and ultimately best) his much larger, gun-toting, opponent across the featureless desert.

The soundtrack, expertly crafted by Woodkid, the neofolk alter-ego of French singer-songwriter Yoann Lemoine, is a perfect accompaniment to the film, which helps build the tension and adds an emotional depth to the story perhaps unwarranted by its script.

Desierto is an enjoyable enough thriller, made all the more poignant by Donald Trump’s presidential bid and his anti-immigrant rhetoric. Where it is fair to compare Jonás Cuarón to his father is in the way both men expertly build tension — and in the way they explore the bleakest, and most isolated, of environments and the impacts of these environments on their central characters. Alfonso did this with space in the Oscar-winning Gravity (which was co-written by Jonás); His son does the same with the desert, or desierto.