Many don’t give enough credit to the immigrant experience. Leaving a place you know for a completely new one is hard. A new setting, a new language, different forms of communication, and so on can make for a rough start in a country that is made up of immigrants, but somehow likes to completely neglect this fact. “Desierto” is a thrilling, gritty adventure of survival that, although simple in story, is filled with meaningful themes.
Moises (Gael García Bernal), along with eleven other people, is in the back of a truck on the way to cross the border into the United States from Mexico. On a journey to a better life, the men and women are scared, anxious, and hopeful. But as (bad) luck would have it, the truck breaks down and everyone is forced to continue the trek toward the border on foot.
Their journey leads them through what is called the “bad lands” and the group quickly discovers that they’re not safe when a merciless, trigger-happy man (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) begins hunting them through the U.S.-Mexican border. With only a gallon of water each and no civilization in sight, the dwindling group has to rely on their survival skills to escape the ruthless and racist man who has taken things into his own hands.
Director and co-writer Jonás Cuarón has made a bare-bones, stripped-to-the-core film about hatred, survival, and the right to live. He’s set it in the desert where there is literally nothing and no one. Unobstructed by the world’s socio-political landscape, The film is compelling while also being thrilling and suspenseful. We get to know just enough about Moises and Adela’s (Alondra Hidalgo) back stories to garner sympathy. But in all honesty, from the moment the camera pans to them in that truck, you immediately know you’re going to be rooting for them and hope they survive the cruelty chasing them down.
Gael García Bernal gives a fantastic performance. He’s struggling on all accounts. Stressed, scared, and anxious because of the situation, but also so very human when he makes decisions that will leave you both frustrated and filled with humanistic understanding. For him, the struggle to survive is very literal and worse than the thought of the eventual struggle he will face afterward.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s character calls for no reason to sympathize. An angry man who firmly believes that Mexicans should stay on their side of the border, he hunts the group like he’s hunting an animal for dinner. Along with his dog Tracker, Morgan delivers a ruthless performance. “This is my home!” he angrily shouts. “Welcome to the land of the free,” he spits after his first slaughter. Truly terrifying in every aspect.
“Desierto” is a gripping suspense. A simple execution may turn many off because it doesn’t seem like there’s much else. But just like Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” the film has phenomenal visuals and a story of instinct and survival being told that begs the question: Doesn’t everyone have a right to fight for survival? By offering little backstory for any of the lead characters, “Desierto” still manages to hold up, providing edge-of-your-seat thrills and intensity that I have yet to see in most other thrillers this year.
"Desierto" is thrilling, suspenseful, and carries a simple, but clear survival and humanistic story.