Could there be a better time for Jonas Cuaron's intense immigration thriller Desierto to hit theaters? Ever since a certain Presidential nominee called all Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals the issue of who is allowed to enter the United States has been hotter, and more divisive than ever. Whatever side of the border you fall on ideologically, Desierto's exploitative kill-or-be-killed style is going to strike a chord, but it definitely isn't trying to change any minds.
Cuaron, a co-writer on Gravity and son of of Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuaron, knows where his loyalties lie. They're with the scores of immigrants attempting to cross the border in raggedy pickup trucks, carrying little in possessions but a great deal of hope. Gael Garcia Bernal is Moises, one of those seeking to cross a dangerous stretch of the Baja Desert for a chance at a better life in America. Unfortunately for him and the others in his party there's Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), an extreme right-wing lunatic who isn't having it. Armed with a nasty sniper rifle and even nastier canine, he begins picking them off one-by-one as they scramble through the unforgiving terrain.
What unfolds is a lean, rugged chase flick that doubles as a horror movie. If the Mexican-born Cuaron is trying to make a statement it's for both sides to try and find the humanity in the other. While Morgan's character is a cold-blooded killer, we also see signs of desperation and depression all over him. Is he truly evil or someone who has seen everything in his life taken away from him? We don't learn enough to know if his hatred towards immigrants is misplaced, but there's no denying that he's in a bad place, looking thin and haggard and defeated. This is a far cry from the boasting, intimidating Morgan we've seen in everything from Watchmen to The Walking Dead. Bernal's character is more plainly heroic, and thus less interesting, exemplifying qualities that we would normally want to see become part of our melting pot.
There have been a number of movies dealing in different ways with the subject of illegal immigration. Desierto is caught somewhere between Sin Nombre and Machete, with brief moments of introspection mirrored by scenes of extreme violence. Once the killing starts it gets ugly quick, especially when Sam's dog literally sinks his teeth into the action. But every now and then things slow down long enough for Moises and the other undocumenteds to share a little bit of their story. It's a good way to humanize them just before they are, well most of them, inevitably at the business end of Sam's rifle.
Unquestionably there will be some who cheer on Sam's murderous solution to illegal immigration. While watching I kept thinking of Robert De Niro's senator in Machete, gunning them down while the cameras rolled. Hopefully Desierto doesn't give anybody any ideas, and they just take it for the white knuckle experience that it is.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5