“Welcome to the Land of the Free,” the horrifying unnamed villain of “Desierto” says, moments after gunning down a helpless group of Mexican immigrants without breaking a sweat. Perched atop a rock, he smiles in satisfaction at the people he’d just knocked down with his rifle like dominos. And that’s just in the first act of the film!
The social commentary brimming in this violent thriller film is effective, especially since the film is so lean on storytelling. The plot is pretty simple. A truck holding a group of Mexicans trying to cross the American border breaks down in the middle of a desert. Lobo, the captain of the operation, leads the pack to walk to the border instead. When our kind unnamed protagonist (played by Golden Globe-winner Gael Garcia Bernal) helps a heavyset guy who has fallen behind, the group breaks up. Before these five can catch up, our shooter picks off Lobo and the rest like animals. The five remaining Mexicans (or “illegals” as our villain calls them) witness this execution and literally run for the hills.
The score creates a pulsing, anxiety-inducing ride with quick, percussive boom boom boom drums during the chase scenes between the shooter and Bernal’s character. The tension escalated with each boom, driving me to the edge of my seat. Additionally, the shots showing the barren and dry land with the sun made me quench with thirst. All those rocks and crunching sounds didn’t remind me of a friendly hike but the complete opposite: an intense fight for your life.
One can interpret this film in multiple ways as the audience is given no real backstory. It could be a message regarding how people of color are trying to stay alive in a white society that keeps trying to erase them, or how immigrants want to a chance to live in “the land of the free,” but then realize that there’s a price to pay to once they arrive in the States. It’s open-ended, and that’s what makes this film appealing and engaging. It’s not brain candy, it’s nourishment.
Bernal, a chameleon of an actor known for roles in “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Amores Perros,” and the recent Amazon series “Mozart in the Jungle,” effortlessly portrays our unnamed protagonist as the frantic, gentle and natural born fighter in this unexpected situation. A svelte Morgan as the racist shooter worked well enough, although I wondered if the details of his character were just tropes: the Confederate flag on his truck, the rifle, the Southern accent and the country music booming from his radio were supposed to lead us to believe this. I would have preferred distinct details that would have provided us insight into this particular character instead of a stereotype. That said, Morgan’s performance was great; he worked with what he was given and he succeeded.
This film might put off some viewers if they see this as another run-of-the-mill thriller. If you see past the violence, past the rocky terrain, there’s a core of empathy.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Photo Credit: STX PRODUCTIONS