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Desierto review: Welcome, dear Mexicans, to the United States of Donald Trump

Suddenly, Gael Garcia Bernal and Jeffery Dean Morgan’s Desierto has become more than just a cat-and-mouse thriller. It has become a symbol of dissent.

movie reviews Updated: Jan 01, 2017 12:17 IST
Rohan Naahar
Suddenly, Desierto has become more than just a cat-and-mouse thriller. It has become a symbol of dissent.
Suddenly, Desierto has become more than just a cat-and-mouse thriller. It has become a symbol of dissent.

Desierto
Director - Jonás Cuarón
Cast - Gael García Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Rating - 3.5/5

It feels odd to get back to talking about movies after the events that have transpired this week, but it’s almost serendipitous how, in this uncertain new world, the first film that has come along to ease us back into normalcy is one that couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune moment.

Maybe it’s for the best that we begin again not with some loud, empty Adam Sandler vehicle or a naked excuse to sell toys disguised as an animated chuckle-fest (although even that wouldn’t be such a bad idea right about now) but a quiet little thriller about illegal Mexican immigrants and a madman with a gun out to get them.

Desierto is by no stretch of the imagination a particularly great film. In all probability, it will soon be forgotten, lost in the desert, like the bodies of some of its characters. But through some unfathomable coincidence, it has washed up on our shores now, a full year after it was selected as Mexico’s official entry to the 2015 Oscars, and 2 days after an event that would forever change how we view illegal immigration.

It has taken on a new life, one that it could never have anticipated. And suddenly, Desierto has become more than just a cat-and-mouse thriller. It has become a symbol of dissent.

They travel in this harsh desert, the desierto, with unknown dangers lurking behind every corner, and with no guarantee of a better life on the other side.

And it is through symbols that it tells its simple story, a story about poor Mexican immigrants, abandoned in the desert by their coyote, as a lunatic redneck picks them out one by one. Many of them have made this unforgiving journey before, often unsuccessfully, and something in their eyes tells us that they will keep making it, no matter how often they are sent back. Many of them have family in the United States, left behind, waiting for them to spend more money than they can afford on this Sisyphean nightmare.

They travel in this harsh desert, the desierto, with unknown dangers lurking behind every corner, and with no guarantee of a better life on the other side - and for what? To trim hedges and file toenails? To fill the tanks of the same people who would vote for a man who calls them ‘criminals, drug dealers and rapists’?

It doesn’t matter that there have been other films made about illegal immigration, films like Sin Nombre and A Better Life; better films, films that deserve to be seen, especially now.

Gael Garcia Bernal’s character represents every poor Mexican who has ever been forced to abandon his homeland for an uncertain future in a country that is becoming more unwelcoming by the hour.

It doesn’t matter that Desierto has little more to offer than a handful of tense sequences, usually variations of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s vigilante gunman hunting down Gael Garcia Bernal’s character, a terrific ambient score by the always-interesting Woodkid, and some suitably bleak visuals of a lifeless desert. It doesn’t matter, because Desierto isn’t about one man versus the other. It’s about an entire people.

Its characters aren’t characters. I watched it minutes ago and I couldn’t name any of them. I’m quite sure none of them were mentioned by name. And this isn’t because of careless screenwriting. It has to be deliberate. The choice to begin (and end) the film as if 10 minutes from each side have been removed has to be a choice, and not a fluke. Because what director Jonás Cuarón, and his father Alfonso (the celebrated Oscar-winning director of films like Gravity and Children of Men), have done is to create a film that is about archetypes and not individuals.

Gael Garcia Bernal’s character represents every poor Mexican who has ever been forced to abandon his homeland for an uncertain future in a country that is becoming more unwelcoming by the hour.

And as for Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s character?

Jeffrey Dean Morgan is a madman with a gun, a wolf on the prowl, hungry for hunger’s sake. He is weak. He is cold. He is alone.

He does not belong to one of those armed militias that are silently being born along the US-Mexico border as we speak. He operates alone. He drives a truck along the highways, with a confederate flag flapping in the sharp summer air. He isn’t governed by an ideology. He isn’t given any backstory that might inadvertently humanise him. He is a monster. He is pathetic. He is a symbol of hatred, anger and xenophobia. He is a madman with a gun, a wolf on the prowl, hungry for hunger’s sake. He is weak. He is cold. He is alone.

He is a symbol of Donald Trump’s America.

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The author tweets @NaaharRohan