The beauty of a good genre film is that it allows us to explore the real world through the lens of unreality. This is why dystopian fiction works so well to exploit a roided-out version of our fears of the present, or why the X-Men comics and movies (regardless of their quality) have always been important in their discussion of marginalized and minority groups. As I’ve written before, this is also why horror is such a vital genre—it reflects the fears of those who made it by amplifying and engaging them in the most direct, confrontational way possible. Depending on the conditions under which the film was made, that reflected fear can be personal, or it can be representative of a far greater cultural nightmare.
Desierto, last year’s horror-thriller by Jonas Cuaron (son of the great Alfonso), is about as direct of a horror movie as you can make. It doesn’t use symbols or buried implications; it doesn’t even use darkness or surprises. It exists in broad daylight and works to shock you by showing you everything.
The plot is as bare as it gets: a group of would-be immigrants, being shuttled across the border on foot after their truck breaks down, begin to be hunted down by a lone man (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his dog. They are shot or mauled, or often both. After an initial spurt of violence in which nearly all of the travelers are killed, the film settles into a slow hunt between Morgan and the surviving immigrants, led by Moises (Gael García Bernal, who is as excellent here as he is in everything else). It’s a sort of haunted-house/slasher film when you get down to it, only the house in the desert, and the slasher prefers his rifle to a knife. The violence Cuaron presents is startling and brutal, efficient in unnerving us. This is not a film were tension rises off-screen and the violence is implied rather than shown to make us imagine what the characters might be suffering through; this is a film where if a character gets shot in the head, we see the skull and brain splatter back on the rocks behind them.
And yet, despite how much it might not seem like a traditional horror film, or thriller, or chase film, Desierto can’t really be considered anything other than a genre film. It certainly isn’t a drama, and though it plays for realism, it does conform just enough to certain expectations we may have for horror. Morgan’s character, dead-eyed the entire movie, loses his ability to hit a target right when it matters most. His dog is disposed of in an insane manner. Morgan’s character has comical outbursts of rage and grief on his own, if only to break the tension. This is a film that wants to shake you but still entertain you when it can. It’s intense, but not in the same way that a straight-ahead drama would have been.
And perhaps that’s best. Because Desierto is a genre film, it can hammer its point home far easier than a drama might have. It can skip nuance—it practically skips character altogether—but it gets its point across. This is a film about the fear that the United States will hate you as an immigrant, and while it deals specifically with people crossing over from Mexico, we can easily imagine Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s truck parked outside the international arrivals terminal at an airport with the same mission. We never learn why he hates undocumented immigrants, or why he’s taken it upon himself to kill them (a Confederate flag flying from his truck suggests that it may be as simple as him merely being a racist), and that’s the point: there doesn’t need to be a backstory. This is a Mexican film, and as such it reflects a fear of hate that cannot be understood, that needs no explanation or backstory. Bernal’s character has already been deported once, but he’s determined to get back to his son in Oakland. Many of the other travelers are crossing for the first time. The journey itself—and the guides who lead them, for profit rather than mercy—are frightening on their own. Desierto is a film about completing an already grueling task only to find that what’s waiting across the finish line hates you without knowing you. It is by no means a perfect film—depending on what kind of horror you like, you might not even think it’s a good one—but it is unquestionably a film made with purpose and conviction.
There are a myriad of great, important films about immigration. From straight-ahead dramas like El Norte and Sin Nombre to sci-fi interpretations like Children of Men, these films take an issue that’s often only explored in political terms and imbue it with the humanity that the discussion requires. Desierto does this with horror. We may not know some of these characters well, but we have the same visceral reaction of shock watching a bullet ripping through them. That’s the point. They are human beings, and watching them be destroyed in this manner should repulse us, no matter who they were.
To watch Desierto, I had to rent it from Amazon, and while renting it, I scanned some of the reviews to see what people thought. Customer reviews aren’t usually much different from comment sections in that they are typically the cesspool of the internet. Though many of the comments were reviews of the film itself (whether good or bad), one praised Morgan’s character for being a true patriot in the film, lauding him for taking justice into his own hands. This comment should’ve been more shocking to me, but of course, Desierto should also feel far more farfetched than it does. Only a few weeks ago, two people were killed by a man who told them to get out of America before ending their lives. A business was burned down because the arsonist thought the owners were Muslim. Horror reflects our world back to us. Desierto works because it feels much more plausible than it should.