Illegal immigration is a complicated issue, not just politically, but socially, economically, and morally as well. The great failure of Desierto, one of the most brutal and unpleasant thrillers I’ve seen in a long time, is that it oversimplifies the issue to the extent that I wouldn’t be surprised if it offended people of both liberal and conservative persuasions. It involves an American vigilante who systematically shoots and kills Mexican immigrants as they illegally cross into the United States; I can’t help but fear that his actions will give ideas to the more dangerous fringes of the anti-immigration movements – especially this year in our current political climate, in which a very outspoken Republican presidential candidate has built a campaign in great part on racism and xenophobia.
On the same token, I worry that the remaining immigrants’ fight for survival will be encouraged and lauded by more leftist groups, all the while unmindful of the fact that (1) what’s ultimately done is just as brutal, if not more so, than what was done to them, and in turn makes them no better than the story’s clearly designated villain, and (2) that they are in fact, and there’s really no getting around this, breaking the law. In each case, someone is going to be rubbed the wrong way, which is to say that it has little chance of making a true, meaningful connection with any potential audience.
But my greatest concern is that, because the simplifications are applied to the development of a mere handful of characters, it will give both natives and foreigners alike the wrong impression of who we all are and what we all stand for. The sniper, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, is a real redneck typecast, driving around in a pickup truck with the Confederate flag attached to the antenna, taking huge swigs of Jack Daniels straight from the bottle, listening to the twangiest country music, always readjusting his cowboy hat, assisted by his faithful hunting dog, appropriately named Tracker; if you believe this character represents the entirety of the American people, or even the entirety of American politicians, let me assure you he doesn’t.
Likewise, it would be ignorant for us Americans to believe that all Mexicans – or any other foreign nationality, for that matter – are looking to illegally cross the U.S. border on overgeneralized notions of wanting better lives and reuniting with families. And yet that’s the impression we get from the immigrant characters in this film, the two most prominent of which are played by Gael Garcia Bernal, who doubles as the film’s executive producer, and Alondra Hidalgo. If you really want a reality check, read Linda Chavez’s 2015 New York Post article, which examines why illegal immigration into the U.S. has actually been decreasing over the last several years.
I think the reason the film doesn’t work is fundamental: It’s really no different than a slasher film, in which a madman slays his victims one by one until a remaining handful, using a combination of luck and ingenuity not afforded to the other characters, work to outsmart him. Slashers, generally speaking, aren’t known for their deep insights into the human condition. And yet the human condition is at the heart of illegal immigration – the emotionality that kickstarts it, the aspirations that drive it forward, the conflict that arises because of it, and the mortality that’s inherent in all people yet greatly magnified as a result of it. In other words, that human touch, that sense of empathy, isn’t there.
In all fairness, I believe that director/co-writer Jonas Cuaron, son of the great director Alfonso Cuaron, was sincere in his efforts to make a pointed statement about how illegal immigrants can be and often are mistreated once they enter our country. I just wish he went about it a different way. There’s nothing to be gained by telling this kind of story in this particular way, especially if the intention is to ignite a debate – or, at the very least, start a conversation. Desierto had that kind of potential. Unfortunately, it does little more than make you cringe. There’s an especially unwatchable scene involving a cactus patch and a flare gun that very nearly had me in tears. To say it wasn’t needed would be an understatement.