Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
All that separates America from Mexico is a thin, rusty barbed wire fence. It’s a serene stretch of land where the silence is filled with the struggles of people attempting to cross the border. While A BETTER LIFE tugged on our heartstrings, and BABEL tackled the topic of immigration briefly, director/co-writer Jonás Cuarón’s DESIERTO creates an atmosphere of pure dread. Unfortunately, it’s not terribly good.
We first meet a group of immigrants at dawn, on their way to the border crossing. Many of them are seeking a better life in America, praying to the saints for safe passage, hoping their American dreams will be soon realized. Anything is better than what they’ve previously had to endure – almost anything, as they will come to find out. Moises (Gael García Bernal), who’s been through this once before, is on his way to see his son in Oakland. Things go south when, miles from their planned point of entry, the coyote’s truck breaks down, leaving them one option – cross over an unfamiliar stretch of terrain. But what they never expected is that a merciless, self-righteous vigilante (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who’s cloaked himself in patriotism (and its talismans), is patrolling that stretch of land – and he’s out for justice.
DESIERTO, which is both a message movie and a horror film wrapped into one, tries to build a pro-immigration stance, and yet by the end, we feel as if we watched a snuff film more than anything, going against what it sets out to do. Who is this movie for? I fear that the republican right will get the wrong message out of it. The attempts Cuarón makes at showcasing humanity could easily be spun for evil. It would not surprise me if Donald Trump uses it in his campaign. For those empathizing with the immigrants, this film leaves a scummy imprint on your soul that lasts for days, if not weeks. It’s not the least bit entertaining to see these people picked off one by one. It’s maddening on multiple levels. Cuarón and co-writer Mateo Garcia create caricatures more than characters, an ensemble of ham-handed screenwriting 101 types: Sam is a ruthless version of Yosemite Sam – he even hunts rabbits. Moises represents a generic struggle. Same goes for Adela (Alondra Hildago). And the rest of the pack aren’t even developed, so when they are killed, we feel nothing. This is far from the pristine EL NORTE.
And a word of warning for those (like myself) who are squeamish: there’s a cruel, gratuitous dog death that Cuarón goes overboard showing. Not only do we hear the sounds of Sam’s German Shepard, Tracker, crying in pain, he cuts back to it two more times after he is initially compromised. It’s absolutely sickening as this is done solely for shock-value and grit. It’s unnecessary. This dog doesn’t have death with any dignity. The filmmakers think that because the bloodthirsty dog has proven himself ‘evil,’ we need to see him get a brutal comeuppance. We don’t.
One thing Cuarón gets right is how he utilizes scale and scope. The desolate landscape can feel oppressive in addition to beautifully expansive. It gets a little dizzying to track character’s locations, but that’s also the point as Moises and Adela are running frantic from this lunatic. Woodkid’s score is nothing short of exceptional.
Even though a social justice horror film in the pop culture landscape is a clever concept, the one we’re given is poorly executed.
DESIERTO opens on October 14.