Genre: Survival Thriller
Directed by: Jonás Cuarón
Run time: 88 minutes
The Lowdown: BAFTA-award-winning writer-director Jonás Cuarón, the son of Academy Award-winning writer-director Alfonso Cuarón, does something remarkable with his second feature-length film.
His survival thriller, Desierto, was shot in 2015, before the 2016 presidential election season exposed America’s dark undercurrent – the fiery, lynch mob-wanting mass expulsion of immigrants from the U.S. – and even before now-President Donald Trump boldly stated his intention to build a massive wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and bragged about how Mexican immigrants were a motley crew of rapists and criminals.
That means Cuarón tapped into the simmering hatred toward immigrants before it had visibly erupted, which gives his film – an above-average, but not spectacular, survival thriller with solid performances from Gael García Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan – considerably more oomph when watched now upon its release.
Cuarón, and other directors like him, most notably Jordan Peele, whose excellent new horror film Get Out mines similar territory, only pitting whites against black minorities instead of Mexican immigrants, are the provocative trail-blazers of a new kind of genre film.
By using their craft to tell stories that can entertain, unnerve and hopefully educate the Middle America masses, they stand a better chance of finally opening some eyes to what life has become in America for anyone not classified as a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
Desierto is bare-bones in its approach, focusing on a group of Mexican citizens trying to cross the U.S. border illegally. They stumble, literally, into the crosshairs of Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who plays a white Texas male “patriot” who believes that anyone not born in the U.S. who tries to cross the border deserves to be shot and killed on sight. Morgan’s character, Sam, swills whiskey from the bottle, loves his dog, never abandons his rifle, drives a big truck and fits almost every stereotype that equally extreme liberals currently use to define a large swath of Trump’s core supporters.
He’s not much more than a one-dimensional cardboard cutout, but he serves his purpose. To be fair, Cuarón makes Gael Garcia Bernal’s Moises, a young father deported for driving without proper identification (while his permanent Visa paperwork was being processed), almost as one-dimensional.
But the point is clear – Sam represents what a lot of people, including our sitting president, seem to believe. Immigrants aren’t welcome here. And Moises paints a sympathetic picture of the immigrant plight. Neither side's character is the likely norm, despite what the film might want you to believe.
As such, I would argue that the majority of conservatives would never advocate killing immigrants for sport, just like the majority of liberals likely would not want immigrants convicted of serious crimes to remain in-country. The problem is the right's rhetoric, which makes it hard to argue when soundbites on national news programs condemn large swaths of people solely based on their ethnicity or country of origin. However, on the flip side, left-leaners have been largely unsuccessful in advancing the message of inclusion rather than exclusion. We're now a country divided, and until we mend and come back together, little sadly will change.
That's why these films deserve to be seen and shared and recommended, even to people who might gleefully watch and cheer Sam’s reprehensible behavior. The hope exists that by the film’s climatic showdown, maybe some common sense, some dawning realization that this is not the way things should be, might take hold.
Kudos to Cuarón for making an admirable first salvo in what will surely become a new genre staple, politically-conscious socio-horror, at least for the next four years.
The Stuff You Care About:
Hot chicks – No.
Nudity – No.
Gore – Gun violence.
Drug use – No.
Bad Guys/Killers – Conservative White America.
Buy/Rent – Rent it.
The Edge of Seventeen (Universal, 102 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): It’s not an instant classic like The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles or even Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but there are enough notable moments and some genuinely funny dialogue to recommend The Edge of Seventeen as an above-average coming-of-age comedy.
King Cobra (Shout! Factory, 91 minutes, Unrated, Blu-Ray): A decent, well-made, true-crime thriller about the gay porn industry that wants to be Boogie Nights but fails to clear the high bar. Fans of James Franco who relish seeing him in this type of role would be better served to check out 2013’s superior Interior. Leather Bar.
Arrival (paramount, 116 minutes, PG-13, Blu-Ray): The best first-contact-with-alien-life movie since Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Arrival also is one of the best, most thoughtful and intelligent science fiction films in recent memory. This one is a must-see.
Beavis and Butthead: The Complete Collection
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Bleed for This