Film Notes: Dread and Despair in Desierto

Desierto (2016) is a kind of horror story, and one seemingly tailor-made for this overheated US presidential election. As the Republican candidate has stoked xenophobia and recently delivered an angry speech in Arizona, this film—although imperfectly—illustrates how violence can occur when a whole group of people are denied their humanity.

Written and directed by Jonás Cuarón, Desierto tells the story of undocumented immigrants attempting to cross into the United States. It shines light on a small fragment of a much larger history of immigration in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. From the Mexican Revolution, which saw thousands cross into the United States to escape violence, to the forced repatriation programs that the U.S. government carried out in the Great Depression, it is a history marked by individual and communal hardship. Looking further into the twentieth century, this sense of Mexican labor  as “cheap,” with workers seen as “disposable” (a subtext to the film) can be traced to the Bracero program (1942-1964), and later to the heavy economic impact of NAFTA on rural Mexican communities in the 1990s.

The film opens on a long, slow panoramic view of the Arizona-Sonora desert. A wood-panel truck carrying the immigrants stops, unable to go further. The coyotes, including one played by Diego Cataño, orders the group out to begin the rest of the trek on foot. The audience follows the story from the perspective of Moises (Gael García Bernal), who was hoping to reunite with him family after having been arrested and deported for a minor traffic violation.

Unknown to this group, a monster lurks in this desert. The audience receives its first glimpses of the villain, Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), driving in a pick-up truck, listening to country music. Attached to the back bumper of the vehicle is a dusty, yellow “don’t’ tread on me” sticker. Along with his trusty dog Tracker, Sam patrols the sparse landscape, while downing hefty amounts of whisky. At one moment, he stops to chat with a Border patrol officer. After traveling deeper into the remote landscape, he comes across the small group of immigrants exhausted under the hot sun. From a distance, he takes position and with a rifle, takes aim.

It is at this moment the viewer realizes that Desierto is something very different from the quite, brooding film that opened. With a sparse script that has the actors showing their emotions on-screen more than talking through the scenes, what follows is a brutal and violent narrative. Like any horror film, the monster decimates the group with a series of swift blows, and then slowly and methodically hunts down the desperate survivors. It is bloody business, made harder to watch given the cruelty of the act. Morgan, with only a handful of words spoken during the entire film, dominates the screen and leaves one with a deep sense of dread as he prowls further into this ugly massacre.

Countering Morgan’s villainy, García Bernal delivers a strong performance. It acknowledges the desperate ordeal his character is in, while also finding a deeper strength as he tries to escape with another immigrant, Adela (Alondra Hidalgo). What ensues is a taut cat-and-mouse game across the rocky, arid landscape. The desert cinematography is captivating, and plays its own part in setting the feel of the film’s atmosphere for the audience. It is a beautiful background for what is otherwise an unrelentingly dark and violent story.

Ultimately, Desierto remains uncomfortable and deeply disturbing throughout much of its 90-minute length. Given the fraught politics of race and identity, as well as the everyday violence witnessed in communities in the United States and Mexico, the film’s exaggerated premise still felt a little too real. With its loose script, the director also leaves much of the interpretation up to the audience. We know that what Morgan’s Sam is doing is wrong, and we know that García Bernal’s Moises is the hero, but many of the scenes haunted me long after I’d left the theater. Perhaps, that was Cuarón’s intent.


Desierto premiered in France and Mexico in April 2016. It will be out in US theaters in October.

Lina Murillo helped with the editing of this review. 

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Philosophy for Children in the Borderlands

This week the El Paso Herald-Post online featured University of Texas at El Paso, Assistant Professor Amy Reed-Sandoval’s Philosophy for Children program. Reed-Sandoval began the Philosophy for Children program on both sides of the border in 2014; working with children in Oaxaca, Mexico, Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and El Paso.

“One of the primary goals of this documentary is to explore the ways in which the social, linguistic, political and historical contexts of the Mexico-U.S. border–and particularly El Paso and Ciudad Juarez–impact the sorts of philosophical questions that local children and community partners seek to answer,” Reed-Sandoval said.

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