Austin Film Festival 2016: “Desierto” review

The film “Desierto,”directed by  Jonás Cuarón (“Gravity”), is not a documentary, but provides a scary look into where a world of racism and lack of empathy could lead in the battle of immigration policy. It could not be more relevant than it is today in the political climate we’re facing with rallying for a building of a wall or deporting illegal immigrants in the U.S. and talking about these people as ants that need to be stopped from leaving their mound.

Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) / Photo credit: STX Entertainment
Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) / Photo credit: STX Entertainment

From the get-go, the stakes are high as we meet the people who are making the long, arduous journey across the desert to cross the U.S.-Mexican border, but they face a dilemma when their transportation breaks down and have to walk to the rest of the way in the extreme elements. Adding to this already-difficult journey is Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, “Watchmen”), a rifle-toting vigilante who is hunting the unarmed immigrants, including Moises (Gael García Bernal, “The Motorcycle Diaries”), with his loyal sidekick dog conveniently named “Tracker.”

The film wastes no time establishing the fast pace that is echoed by the sniper shots taking down the group one by one. The suspense and quick tempo mixed with the harsh elements of the desert kept me engaged throughout the film and a little shocked, because we know this is a not-so-far-off reality that immigrants face to some degree coming over from Mexico. The fact that the film is mirroring a reality that is a foreseeable future adds to the tension that beats throughout the film and made me question what this world would look like and made the outcome of the film so important.

Moises (Gael García Bernal) / Photo credit: STX Entertainment
Moises (Gael García Bernal) / Photo credit: STX Entertainment

If I wasn’t already excited for Morgan’s portrayal of the villain Negan on the AMC TV series, “The Walking Dead,” this sniper-hunting role is definitely an indication of the kind of tough and unrelenting villainous portrayal he can reach. Morgan delivers an honest portrayal of a man who is willing to take the law into his own racist hands because he believes he’s doing a service, but also gives us the other side of that coin. We see the toll the killing has on him, but still in no way justifies his actions, but simply forces us to realize that both sides are not so black-and-white and that there are losses on both sides.

The film’s breakout character is the dog without a doubt, and in addition to the great score that echoes a racing heartbeat, I was always on the edge of my seat knowing Sam was so close to catching Moises. There is no rest in this film and you’ll never feel a sense of safety, but it’s a great look into a topic that everyone needs to delve into from a more two-sided coin, rather than from just their own perspectives.

Photo credit: STX Entertainment
Photo credit: STX Entertainment

I realized that no matter what happened at the end of this film, there wouldn’t be a real winner or solace in knowing whether Moises lives or if he somehow is able to outsmart Sam and get away. Both their journeys are the more interesting part of the story, because both have such strong convictions on what they are trying to do and what they are willing to do to each other to reach that. It’s human against human in the most ravenous way which is difficult to comprehend as a viewer because it doesn’t have to be this way. The fact that lack of understanding leads Sam to take the law into his own hands and not see the people he is killing as people who should live is an examination and look into our society today as a whole on immigration policy.

This film is not going to be an easy watch and there are some graphic and rough moments. But it’s a must-see for anyone looking for a human story that is suspenseful and thought-provoking. It also poses the lengths of what someone will do in search of a better life or what they think is right. The question I asked myself at the end of this film is whether the cost of those consequences will be too much to bear and why it has to be this way.

“Desierto” was part of the Austin Film Festival’s opening night screening and opens in theaters today. If you’re interested in attending more films at Austin Film Festival, you can find more information here

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