The premise of Desierto is simple, and blunt. A truck full of Mexican migrants, attempting to cross the U.S. border illegally, is attacked in the desert by a lone gunman. For the next 90 minutes, the truck’s occupants are hunted by this demented figure toting a sniper rifle, a horror-movie villain who mumbles to his dog about keeping his country safe. If the metaphor seems obvious, well, it’s supposed to be—the Mexican director Jonas Cuarón has manifested a villain out of recent anti-immigrant sentiment, and is terrorizing viewers with it.
Desierto is not a good movie, but it’s an interesting pop-cultural footnote, especially given its release in the final weeks leading up to a U.S. presidential election in which Donald Trump seized the Republican nomination partly on the back of his extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric. It’s a horror movie first and foremost, although not a particularly original one. Cuarón’s father, Alfonso (who produced the film), is a master stylist who excels at layering deeper meaning into his work, and while any comparison between the two might feel unfair, it’s also inevitable. Desierto’s message is always clear, and while Cuarón extracts some genuinely visceral shocks from this take on The Most Dangerous Game, the film is more of an angry, well-intentioned idea than a significant piece of art.
Gael García Bernal, who collaborated with Alfonso Cuarón on Y Tu Mamá También, plays Moises, the primary target of Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a rather obviously named avatar of American isolationism and racism. Sam is armed with a rifle and accompanied by an evil dog that’s trained to tear a person’s throat out in an instant. After the briefest of setups, the pair begin their mission, dispatching most of the workers crossing the border with Moises with ruthless efficiency. Because Cuarón wants the whole experience to be brutish above all else, viewers don’t learn anything about the people being attacked, or even their names, as if to express how inhuman Sam believes them to be.
Whatever larger impact Desierto could have had is dulled by the story’s simplicity. Sam is supposed to represent some larger pervasive movement within America, but he’s too comically evil for the metaphor to work; there’s a banality to the prejudice of anti-immigrant sentiment that the film doesn’t want to engage with. The violence is bloody, but it erupts so quickly and continues so incessantly that there’s rarely a sense of real tension. Viewers immediately know what this 90-minute allegory is leading to—a final showdown between Sam and Moises, a battle of pure good and evil. As a result, Desierto quickly sags once audiences have wrapped their mind around Sam’s mission.
Perhaps that’s Cuarón’s larger point—that viewers can reconcile themselves to this awful violence, especially when it’s presented in a genre format via an action thriller playing out in the landscape of a wide-open desert. But the film’s battle lines are drawn so quickly, and its point made so unsubtly, that it’s hard to go much deeper. Yes, the rhetoric of politicians like Trump, who tar Mexican immigrants as monstrous rapists and murderers, is worth investigating, and Cuarón’s obvious anger over it is both palpable and understandable.
But because of its one-note message, this film isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind about anything. Desierto succeeds in portraying the savagery of racism, but in the end, it’s completely cold. Cuarón co-wrote Gravity, the similarly stripped-down, though far less metaphorical, thriller that his father directed, but that movie succeeded by embracing its humanity. The way Sandra Bullock’s character’s sad life story unfolded as she did battle with the harshness of outer space was undeniably trite. And yet it served as a necessary emotional anchor amid the film’s CGI chaos.
Meanwhile, Desierto wears its single-mindedness as a badge of pride. It’ll be best remembered as an entry in the stack of political films of 2016 that seemed all the sharper thanks to the rise of Trump. From Zootopia, Disney’s ballad of inclusiveness and empathy, to Denial, which wrestled with the ethics of giving blatantly racist views their day in court, there’s been a surprisingly wide range of works with extra weight in a deeply polarized year. Desierto is the nastiest of them all, but it’s also the shallowest.