Had Jonás Cuarón’s Desierto been made a few years ago, nothing would have separated it from a run-of-the-mill exploitation film. The movie’s villain would have come off as overly cartoonish and lacking any reasonable motive for his rampage. The violence would have seemed unnecessarily horrific. But Desierto elicits—and requires—a very different reaction in 2016, a year when Donald Trump could be elected President of the United States.
Anti-immigrant lies have spewed from Trump’s mouth almost non-stop for two years, and his adoring masses have convinced themselves he speaks truth. His claim that immigrants are rapists and murderers has been accepted as gospel by many unquestioning fans. Into this political landscape Desierto, a film about the mass murder of Mexican immigrants, chanced—or perhaps not by total chance—to come into being. Now it resists being a forgettable midnight movie, because in this context it is a deadly serious and frighteningly relevant trip into the most extreme outposts of hatred.
Desierto opens with a gorgeous stationary shot of a salt flat south of the United States border. The sun slowly rises above the hills, bathing the once-dark desert in a blood orange-colored light. As the sun emerges, an ant-sized truck drives across the flat in the distance. It’s shot from so far away that it looks tiny and vulnerable in the midst of an uncompromising desert. The shot lasts quite a long time, long enough for the truck to make it from one side of the screen and disappear across to the other side. It gives a sense of scale and makes it clear that this journey will be long and difficult.
The truck is filled with a dozen immigrants entering the country illegally. The drivers are people-smugglers, usually referred to as “coyotes.” There’s a sense of menace as they drive on, and inevitably something goes wrong; the truck breaks down before reaching the desired destination. Rather than wait for help, the coyotes set out on foot, lest they forfeit their bonuses for speedy delivery.
The film cuts to Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who is hunting for rabbits in the desert, accompanied by his aptly named dog, Tracker. Sam seethes with indignation about the perceived inability of the border patrol to stop illegal immigration. Although he is just a private citizen (and a racist), Sam sees himself as an antidote to the border patrol’s impotence.
Sam’s characterization is blunt and obvious. Rather than water, he mostly sips on a bottle of whiskey in the desert heat. He doesn’t appear to own much more than his truck, his dog, and his rifle. A Confederate battle flag is attached to his truck’s antenna and a Gadsden flag sticker on his window.
These two symbols aren’t exactly new; the Confederate flag has been a symbol of white supremacy for over 150 years, and the Gadsden flag has existed since the founding of the United States. The latter has had a resurgence in popularity ever since it was adopted by Tea Party groups in 2009. But Sam’s specific hatred for Latino immigrants belongs to contemporary climates shaped by people like Trump and his followers. Sam shares their language when he refers to the immigrants as “illegals.” To him, their existence is against the law.
When Sam comes across the immigrants, he begins to gun them down from afar, one by one. The immigrants are in a wide-open area with nowhere to hide from his sniping. A group of stragglers, led by Moises (Gael García Bernal), seek cover from Sam’s gunsight, but only temporarily.
There’s a sickening look of glee on Sam’s face as he begins to kill. After dispensing with the first batch of immigrants he even utters, “Welcome to the land of the free,” a bit of over-the-top dialogue that would have sunk this movie in any other year. But Desierto has come into existence at a time when one of the two choices for our next president openly despises people of Mexican heritage. Someone like Sam doesn’t seem like a psychopathic outlier anymore, but more a logical extension of the current political climate. Even the extent of his crime seems less fantastic. The number of people he murders would have ranked his action in real life among the ten or twenty most deadly mass shootings in America’s history.
There have always been racists and xenophobes, but people like Trump have made this kind of hate viral; it’s part of the reason why someone living in Nebraska might fear immigrants crossing the border with Mexico. As with many of those who openly fear illegal immigration, it’s not clear that the people entering the United States illegally would actually have any effect on Sam; he doesn’t appear to have any job that could be taken by someone else (even though the idea of job-stealing immigrants is just a myth). Instead, he’s driven by racism and a fear of outsiders.
“He’s a manifestation of the horror of hate speech,” said Bernal in a recent interview. “He is the monster in the equation of how migration is being talked about. The monster is the hate narrative that exists.”
Cuarón has stated that he originally set out to make nothing more than a genre film, but he believes the rise of Trump has made Desierto more timely. “At first I thought it was a joke, but then the other politicians started this race to say who could say the most racist things,” Cuarón said, referring to the extreme rhetoric of Trump and his ilk. “So that’s when I realized not only had the movie not lost its relevance, but, sadly, became more relevant.”
The film doesn’t waste much time with character development—aside from Bernal, the only other Mexican who has much of a chance to speak is Adela (Alondra Hidalgo). Cuarón is more interested in diagnosing Sam’s sickness than in showing the complicated lives of those he despises. Desierto is undoubtedly influenced by The Most Dangerous Game (1932), in which another psychopathic man hunts people who have been shipwrecked on his island. That villain, Count Zaroff, was a product of fantasy, but Sam is very much of this time and place.
As a work of exploitation cinema, Desierto is unflinching. It’s brutal, and at times gruesome. There’s a moment of stomach-churning violence toward an animal that may inspire some to walk out of the film to find a respite from the violence. But it’s necessary to stay. This slaughter of immigrants was fictional, but those entering the country illegally still face violence at every turn. The option to look away is a privilege not shared by all.