Desierto, which opened on October 14, won a prize at the Toronto International Film Festival AND was selected as the Mexican entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. The desert plays a staring role in Jonás Cuarón’s film about immigrants fleeing across an unforgiving landscape while trying to escape from a vigilante intent on killing those crossing the border from Mexico into the U.S. It’s a sobering film and one that is must see. (Click to read the review.)
The film caused us to look back at others that have been set in the desert. Here are our selections:
The Hills Have Eyes (1977) Written, directed and edited by Wes Craven the master of horror himself. Starring Scream Queen Dee Wallace (The Howling, Cujo) and Michael Berryman of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Weird Science. A car crash leaves the seven members of the Carter family and their two dogs stranded in the Nevada desert. They end up set upon by a clan of savage, inbred, cannibals. (Don’t you just hate it when that happens?) The film was originally given an X rating by the MPAA and had to do considerable edits to get down to an R rating. It did all right in its initial box office release but now enjoys a massive cult following and has spawned a major horror movie franchise.
Near Dark (1987) This American Western Horror film was among the earliest films directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker) and she co-wrote it with Eric Red (The Hitcher, The Last Outlaw). Young Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar of Carlito’s Way and Heroes) with beautiful young drifter Mae (Jennie Wright of The World According to Garp and St. Elmo’s Fire). Unfortunately it turns out Mae’s part of a nomadic vampire ‘family’ living out of an RV and she bites Caleb so he can join them. It made almost no money in its initial release despite great reviews but has since become appreciated as a cult classic and genuinely fresh take on the vampire genre. Not to mention coining the classic phrase, “I hate it when they don’t shave.”
Tremors (1990) Directed by Ron Underwood (City Slickers, Mighty Joe Young) and starring the one and only Kevin Bacon as cowboy Valentine McKee. ‘Val’ and his partner Earl (Fred Ward of Escape From Alcatraz) are a pair of handymen in former mining settlement Perfection, Nevada where a series of strange incidents occur. With the help of seismology grad student Rhonda (Finn Carter from Ghosts of Mississippi) they figure out that Perfection, is now being plagued by giant underground snake monsters. It was only a modest hit at the box office but did HUGE on video, TV, the Internet, etc. It currently holds a ‘fresh’ rating of 85% on the Tomatometer and is a favorite among monster movie fans everywhere.
Wolf Creek (2005) This Australian horror film was written, co-produced, and directed by Greg McLean who later went on to work on such films as Crawlspace and Red Hill. Three backpackers are taken captive. They manage to escape only to be hunted by a depraved serial killer. Loosely based on the real life murders performed by Ivan Milat in the 90’s and Bradley Murdoch in 2001. It had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for seven Australian Film Institute awards including Best Director.
Bone Tomahawk (2015) This Western horror film was written and directed by novelist S. Craig Zahler and starring Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, and David Arquette. In the community of Bright Hope sometime around the 1890’s a series of mysterious deaths is finally traced to a clan of cannibalistic savages known as the Troglodytes who live in the Valley of the Starving Men. A posse of course is sent out but things don’t go quite as planned. Critically acclaimed, for its realism, its direction, its screenwriting and most especially for Kurt Russell’s performance it has an 89% fresh rating on the Tomatometer and was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards.
With Desierto now in theaters (read the review), and illegal immigration being such a hot topic in the presidential election this year, it seems only right to remember some of the following flicks about the immigrant experience.
Mojados: Through the Night (2004) Director Tommy Davis accompanied four men as they make a 120 mile journey across the Texan desert over the course of 10 days and edited into a 55 minute film. It won the Grand Prize at the San Antonio Underground Festival, Best Documentary at the Santa Fe Film Festival and Arizona International Film Festival, and the Audience Awards at the Kansas International Film Festival and SXSW Film Festival.
Sangre de Mi Sangre (2007) This Argentinean-American thriller tells the story of Pedro (Jorge Adrian Espindola) a young Mexican boy who travels to Brooklyn in search of his long lost father Diego (Jesus Ochoa of Man of Fire and Beverly Hills Chihuahua). But Pedro’s identity is stolen by a young imposter Juan (Armando Hernandez of Fast Food Nation) out to steal Diego’s savings. Pedro then teams up with the streetwise Magda (Paoloa Mendoza from The Undying) as he tries to find his dad. It won the Grand Jury Prize for a Dramatic Film at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards.
Frozen River (2008) Courtney Hunt made her debut writing and directing this crime drama. Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo, The Fighter and Prisoners) is a working class mom hoping to purchase a new trailer home. She teams up with Native Hall Bingo Hall employee Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham from Skins and August: Osage County) in a dangerous business of transporting illegal immigrants from Canada to the U.S. by driving them over the frozen Lawrence River. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Best Female Lead from the Independent Spirit Awards for Melissa Leo, and was nominated for two Academy Awards including Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay.
Sin Nombre (2009) Cary Joji Fukanaga (Jane Eyre, Beasts of No Nation, and True Detective) wrote and directed this Mexican adventure thriller. Sayra (Paulina Gaitan who later starred in the cult horror hit We Are What We Are) is a young Honduran girl. Along the way she ends up with two companions Casper (Edgar Flores) and Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer) members of a Mexican street gang seeking to escape the violence. Besides being the film that put Fukanaga on the map it also won awards Best Directing and Excellence in Cinematography at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. (Yep I’m seeing a pattern for movies about immigration and the Sundance Film Festival, too.)
Which Way Home (2009) Rebecca Cammisa received a Fulbright scholarship to direct this documentary that would air on HBO. Cammisa followed several children trying to get from Mexico and Central America to the U.S. on top of a freight train known as “La Bestia.” (The Beast). It won an Emmy Award and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Top photo: Bigstock
Fourteen Mexicans sit huddled in a battered truck. One girl reads the Bible, praying that she will safely reach the promised land. A young man pulls from his backpack a worn out teddy bear that plays a tune with a small voice saying, “I love you,” a memory of the son that waits for him in California.
Jonás Cuarón’s Desierto puts a face to the immigrant experience, all those individuals who, like so many before them, are willing to risk everything to come to America. Cuarón wrote the screenplay for Gravity, which his father, Alfonso, won an Academy Award for directing. Jonás not only directed Desierto, but was also writer, editor, and producer. The film has been a labor of love, taking him seven years to bring to the screen. “I took a trip through the U.S. Southwest where I encountered first-hand stories surrounding immigration and the often cruel and violent story of the migrant journey,” he said. “I was very moved and immediately felt compelled to outline the film – which happened before writing Gravity.” His father serves as a producer of the film.
The truck carrying the immigrants is still miles from the U.S. when it breaks down. Three men have been paid to take the Mexicans to the border. After reporting the truck problem, one is ordered by his boss to stay with the truck, while the other two will escort the group the rest of the way. Unfortunately, the trip will take them on foot through some of the harshest and most unforgiving land between Mexico and the U.S. (The film was actually shot in the state of Baja California Sur where, according to press information, the only access was by dirt roads, with no cellphone coverage, and temperatures in the triple-digits.) Cuarón’s desire to have the terrain share equal credit with the characters only adds to the film’s sense of isolation.
Gael García Bernal
The desert isn’t the only enemy the immigrants face. Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has appointed himself the de facto border patrol. Rather than capture any immigrants he spies, however, he guns them down. “I used to love it here,” he tells his German shepherd, Watcher. “I hate it here. It’s messing with my brain. I’ve got to get out of this hell.” Having identified immigrants as the source of his unhappiness, Sam is ruthless, picking off his victims with his rifle equipped with a scope. Fueled by the liquor he’s been consuming, he shows neither glee nor remorse as the bodies begin to fall. One man who is injured but not dead, is finished off by Watcher, a gruesome sight.
Soon there are just two survivors, Moises (Gael García Bernal), the father desperate to get back to his son in California, and Adela (Alondra Hidalgo), whose mother wanted her to escape the dangerous situation in her village. She wonders out loud what her mother would think now, watching her and Moises fleeing a serial killer across the desert. Moises’ situation is particularly poignant. He had been living with his wife and son in Oakland when he was stopped because his car had a broken tail light. Although he had applied for a resident visa, “one thing led to another,” and he was soon sent back to Mexico.
Bernal, who has been acting in Mexico since childhood, is now making his mark in the U.S. This year he won a Golden Globe for playing a conductor in Amazon Prime’s Mozart in the Jungle. His performance in this film should raise his profile even more, on both sides of the border. His Moises isn’t the strongest of the group, but the more determined to survive in order to get back to his son. Morgan, whose resume is equally impressive, with credits on TV (ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, Showtime’s Weeds) and film (Watchman, Taking Woodstock), manages to make Sam more than a one-dimensional villain. In contrast to the immigrants, he’s the one without a country, someone who no longer fits in and lashes out with a vengeance at those he blames.
Desierto is an important film, particularly at such an important moment for our nation.
Desierto opens nationwide on October 14, 2016. In Spanish with English subtitles.
Top photo: (L to R) Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Gael García Bernal
Photos courtesy of STX Entertainment