The best kinds of movies provide emotional context to the thorniest political, ideological and philosophical issues that plague us as a species. Now available on DVD and Blu-ray, Desierto, Jonás Cuarón’s Spanish-language feature, tackles one of the most topical concerns of the current United States administration: illegal immigration. By laying out the issue in narrative form, Cuarón adds a relatable, human face to a contentious concept, and delivers a thriller of a cat-and-mouse chase along the way.
Jonás Cuarón, son of Alfonso Cuarón (who serves as a co-producer on the film), acts as both director, co-writer and producer for Desierto – so, clearly the topic is an important one to him. What’s more, Cuarón assembled a nearly-all Mexican cast for the feature, with Mozart in the Jungle’s Gael García Bernal leading the pack. The film opens with a gentle, tentative sunrise, illuminating the path of a truck transporting a group of Mexican migrants seeking a better life in the land of opportunity. For now, their precise motivations are unknown, and the film allows us to revel in that uncertainty. As the truck bounces along, one passenger utters a prayer, and Bernal’s character, Moises, toys with a mysterious teddy bear, exchanging pleasantly mundane words with the man beside him. Abruptly, however, the truck breaks down, and the migrants are forced to travel the rest of the way across the punishingly hot desert landscape on foot.
During the first part of this trek, we get a bit more insight into Moises’s character: he interrupts the unwanted advancements of an older man on a young girl being escorted across the border, and he drops behind the group in order to help along an exhausted migrant who can barely put one foot in front of the other. In the commentary by Cuarón – the DVD’s only bonus feature – the director explains that actions like these are not uncommon among migrants. “One of the most moving things you encounter when reading about migration is the solidarity that exists between all migrants,” he said.
That solidarity contrasts notably with the selfish solitude of Sam, a gun-toting, attack dog-wielding vigilante played by the ever nefarious Jeffrey Dean Morgan. With the introduction of Sam, the film’s nuances begin to fade away; whatever your thoughts on immigration reform, it probably doesn’t involve picking migrants off one by one with your assault rifle, or having your dog maul them to pieces, leaving their bodies to rot in the desert sun. This is where Desierto largely leaves behind the politics of the hot-button issue and ventures into the territory of a thriller. And, to be sure, Sam is quite the villain.
“Welcome to the land of the free,” Sam croons, after murdering a bunch of humans. (According to Cuarón, the line was added by Morgan himself.) It would be comical if it weren’t so terrifying.
The dreaded violence is peppered with brief moments of calm, but these scenes are all the more ominous because of what – or rather, who – is lurking out in the distance. And yet, although the vast, dirt-encrusted plains are depicted as harsh and unforgiving, there are swaths of greenery that tentatively allude to the hope that America offers despite the presence of people like Sam.
Desierto ends as ambiguously as it begins, but one thing becomes vibrantly clear: if we don’t respect our fellow humans as people, the cycle of violence and mistrust may never end.