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