"Desierto": Romanticism and Disgust

in 40th Toronto International Film Festival

by Kerstin Gezelius

Desierto is a film you can get in trouble for liking. If a director is going to tell the story of a group of Mexican immigrants being chased and shot at by a racist vigilante, in this day and political climate, he should know what he is doing. Turning it into this mixture of arty exploitation and mainstream thriller, is bordering on tastelessness. Especially since Jonas Cuaròn doesn’t always juggle these different genres very gracefully. A couple of scenes fall to the floor and just lie there in plain, painful sight.

But what you remember are the ones that stay in the air and the intensity and power of the film as a whole. The rhythm, the space, the physical sensation of being hunted as an animal in an environment that provides no shelter. The dog, Tracker, who sniffs out the immigrants as they’re trying to hide, sensing their fear. He is a formidable runner and a ruthless killer who makes no difference between rabbits and humans. He aims for the throat and hangs on until the prey stops moving. His breath and the sound of his fast paws on gravel as he scurries through the quiet, arid canyons is haunting.

His master, a lean, silver-haired whisky-drinking hunter (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) also enjoys killing Mexicans. It’s what the two of them do. On the night by the campfire, after an unusually successful day, the man tells his dog:  “I used to love this land. I don’t any more. The heat is messing up my brain.”

That’s all the backstory we get to this character. It’s beautiful, like a Townes Van Zandt song. One would sympathize and find him authentic, even moving, if one hadn’t just seen him go about his loathsome business. That violent clash of romanticism and disgust is one of the brilliant things about this film.

The other is how it manages to maintain a sense of “just another day” for both the hunter and the hunted (a recurring question among the immigrants is if it’s their  “first time crossing”, which puts the perilous journey in perspective) without denying that the events that take place are bizarre and extreme. This creates an unsettling, dream-like effect that allows for the use of very basic symbols and clichés.

For Desierto is an almost provokingly basic film. Beautifully shot in the badlands of Baja, California it relies completely on the oldest cinematic story-telling device ever, the cross cut between chased and chaser. Von Stroheim’s Greed and Spielberg’s Duel both come to mind, but there is also an exploitative tackiness that is more in the vein of – at its best – Sam Peckinpah’s films, at its worst Charles Bronson’s Death Wish movies; a sickening use of violence that is both true and slightly inappropriate at the same time.

The flaws are as glaring as the assets. Turning a tragic political reality into a horror flick is questionable to begin with. Doing it without an ironic twist or sense of humor, is maybe worse. The killing order of the group of immigrants is clichéd horror fare, as is the use of a musical teddy bear. But all this would be fine if Cuaròn didn’t also fall for the temptation of “humanizing” the victims. To have the main character, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, break the eerie silence and focused energy with a story about how he has to bring his son’s teddy bear back to the U.S., is on the very wrong side of tacky. As if the fact that this man is hunted by a self-righteous madman isn’t enough to make us sympathize. As if there could be a scenario that would make the murders okay.

This scene smells suspiciously of script doctoring, of demands made by producers and distributors. But then again, Cuaròn might just not know what a powerful film he has made. Desierto needs no crutches. It is not the powerful drama about migration that it wants to be, but it gets one thing very right: the weird, physical sensation of being hated by people who don’t know you. Of being on the receiving end of that hatred and knowing that it can sniff you out of your hiding place and kill you, anywhere, at any time.

To convey that experience is no small feat.

Edited by Alissa Simon