Desierto and the Law of the Land
Jonas Cuarón’s Desierto (2015) is a Mexican-French production with dialogue in both Spanish and English. The film’s premise and themes include border disputes, contested spaces, and dispossession, featuring characters who feel as though their land is no longer under their control. Desierto was Mexico’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards and was internationally released from 2016 to 2017. Certain characteristics and creative choices, especially adherence to action and horror film genre conventions and narrative and cinematographic identification with opposing sides of separately dispossessed characters, reveal how Desierto operates on the history and theory of past cinematic engagements with global themes and borders and contested spaces. Therefore, this essay explores the film’s advancement of themes of colonization/dislocation present in “Outback horror films” like Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)as well as related international films about the histories of consuming land, then examines the timing of the film and analyzes the film’s narrative and genre variations.
Central to this reading of the film is the connection between globalization and colonization. Desierto is not predicated on a dramatic situation of anyone systematically taking/taking over the land and resources of another. Yet its relatively small-scale drama between an alienated American individual and the Mexican individuals he sees as alien invaders, does share some features with the colonization theme that serves as a backdrop to “Outback horror films,” especially the view of a border as a “line in the sand.” To not respect the border is to risk being consumed by a native whose relationship to the land is not easily surrendered. Added to this understanding of the border is an outgrowth of “the second era of capitalist globalization” in which “threat evasion is replacing opportunity seeking as a motivation for international migration because of…rising levels of civil violence in the world’s poorer nations” (Donato and Massey). For some present-day migrants, the choice to leave home ends up amounting to fleeing one form of known violence to settle in an unknown space of another, who may or may not be violent as well.
In “Outback horror films” from the 1970s through more recent efforts like Wolf Creek (2005)here is an intentional subtext or text that relates to the historical attempts by settlers to claim the space of another. These stories of violent overtaking influence the perception of the space. In “The Imagined Desert,” Tom Drahos “considers the Outback as a culturally produced text”:
Over the last several decades the Outback has received attention as the site of isolated and infrequent horror stories. These narratives feature societal outsiders attacking passive agents seeking to consume the space…Such horror stories… are part of the fabric of the myth that is intrinsic to the Outback. Travellers in the ‘Dead Heart’ are likely to come under attack, from the landscape, from its creatures, from the ‘other’. When travellers go missing, or tourists are shot at, old narratives receive offerings of fresh blood. These violent happenings are in keeping with the Outback narrative’s tradition and reinforce its imagined reality. The inversion of the triumphant colonial narrative is one of invasion, genocide and dispossession; the Outback has always been a space of violence. (151)
The immigrant protagonists of Desierto are in part motivated by threatening violence in Mexico, yet the violence they encounter upon entering the United States is in fact deadlier. Overall, the film’s minimal attention to goals and motives on both sides of the central dramatic conflict, position Desierto outside of the demands of drama. Whereas drama would necessitate a character-driven approach with psychological characterization and interaction, the execution of Desierto is plot-driven, focusing instead on physical, external factors. This is appropriate for a survival story of life-or-death stakes. The star and director contextualize their movie within action and horror genres. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Gael García Bernal, who plays lead character Moises, says in the action genre “You can really narrow the distance between one character and another. That’s why in action movies the villain is sometimes [a sympathetic character] … Action erases difference in an interesting way. We went with less dialogue, less background story, less construction to make it more elemental and emotional” (Andersen). Indeed, the location shooting and emphasis on kinetic visual action are elemental aspects of cinema language that are universally comprehensible. And the placement of a topical border story within such a genre to some degree equates characters on both sides of the conflict and provocatively exploits the viewer’s tendency to root for these sides to win or lose.
Cuarón has called the film “a pure horror movie,” explaining to The Washington Post, “It follows the formula of a bad guy who starts chasing you and killing your friends, one by one. I’ve always been a fan of ’70s genre films in the U.S.—movies that spoke to deeper subject matter, but disguised under the mask of genre” (O’Sullivan). When evaluated within these formulas of the action and horror genres, Desierto‘s equivocal treatment of characters in relationship to the land and borders along with the audience identification to an antagonistic character who emerges to be an immoral man are effective techniques. Several strands of the horror film genre similarly situate the viewer between vulnerable potential victims and retributive killers, such as the slasher film tradition that exploits an audience’s investment in seeing young people pay for transgressions against/among masked (and wounded) forces of evil.
Cuarón’s reference to ’70s genre films supports Desierto‘s connection to “Outback horror films” influenced by the post-colonial history of Australia. The mystery and horror of these films, such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, involve what Jytte Holmqvist describes as “mixed feelings of awe and estrangement – cultural and spiritual – among descendants of European settlers with reference to the untamed, raw natural element,” which in Picnic at Hanging Rock is specifically “symbolized by a rock charged with Aboriginal imagery and mythology” (Holmqvist 28). The mythic plot, set on and after Valentine’s Day in 1900, features a group of schoolgirls who disappear along with one of their teachers during a picnic at Hanging Rock, Victoria, Australia. The Rock appears to stop time, to enchant the young women, and to consume them, though the mystery of their disappearance is never solved. Desierto contains no such myth, but the film does include references to temporal cycles of appearance and disappearance, of the importing and deporting of migrant populations.
For filmmakers, there is something to be learned by the timing of this film within Cuarón’s filmography. Desierto is his second directorial feature and first film to follow the critically and commercially successful Gravity (2013), which he co-wrote with his father Alfonso Cuarón. Jonás Cuarón first had the idea for Desierto years before Gravity was conceived, but the financial and critical success of the later picture situated the younger Cuarón in an ideal position to execute his own directorial vision.
There is another way in which timing affects the release of Desierto, which is the potential for the film to be seen as purely topical, as a ripped-from-the-headlines scenario dramatizing the rhetoric of immigration and migration debates within international politics. Though apart from some references within the press to the U.S. and French presidential elections that were mostly prompted by journalists encouraging Cuarón to make comparisons, Desierto is a movie concerned with long-time inequalities and hostilities between peoples throughout global history, inequalities and hostilities that threaten to worsen in the context of 21st century globalization.
One piece of evidence supporting this larger context is Cuarón’s claim that an early draft of the screenplay inspired the script for Gravity, a film that takes place almost entirely away from our planet: “He [Alfonso] liked the concept—about a solitary character in a harsh, unforgiving environment—so we adapted it to space” (O’Sullivan). Another clue to the filmmaker’s intention to situate his story within a much longer span of global history than an election cycle is the opening sequence of the film, which creates a greater context through images and dialogue. The opening shot of Desierto is an establishing shot of the desert location, except that only the stars in the dark night sky are visible. When the sun does rise over a mountain, revealing the desert, there is still the possibility that this film takes place on another planet beyond the stars.
The film then introduces a group of migrants including Moises and Adela (Alondra Hidalgo) being transported to the United States in a truck driven by an unscrupulous driver. One member of the group prays a prayer that links their journey to the migrant experiences of Abraham and Jesus, as recounted in Scripture. This dialogue serves a similar function to the expanse of the opening shots, which is to indicate to a viewer that although this specific plot illustrates an immigration scenario consistent with 21st century capitalist globalization, the concerns of the characters in this film are also part of a much larger history than the particular period of the film’s release.
As for the film’s plot, its events could be summarized rather quickly. When the truck transporting the migrants breaks down, they must make the journey through the badlands on foot. But American Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who intends to kill every Mexican he sees, begins to shoot them to death one by one, and so they must attempt to evade him and fight for survival in the harsh conditions. That is the entire plot of the feature film. Yethat Cuarón does with this lean plot, through narrative and genre, is more complex than would appear when merely reviewing the chronology of the events. One narrative technique that makes the execution of the plot so engaging is the way Cuarón defines the characters in their relationship to the land and border, on both sides of the contested space, as well as the effect that relationship has on the viewer’s identification with the characters. The villain, Sam, while seemingly one-dimensional in the hateful and racist things he shouts at the migrant heroes of the film, is initially introduced within the plot as being bothered by a border patrol agent (Lew Temple). Before the carnage begins, it’s possible that Sam is merely a man trying to hunt rabbits so that he can eat, and that his faithful German shepherd, Tracker, is there to aid that purpose. The inclusion of the unfriendly scene with the border patrol agent makes a point about the ineffectiveness of official channels of border control in the southern United States. The scene contextualizes Sam’s frustration, likely shared by those who in real life support stronger efforts for immigration enforcement, though it does not excuse his later violent action.
When the border agent asks him about a permit and instructs him not to hunt on state land, one way to read the exchange is to be rightly frustrated by Sam’s collision with bureaucracy. His own resentment at not feeling free to act is echoed, and horrifically actualized, in his later statement to the heroes of the film after he shoots and kills several of them: “Welcome to the land of the free.” He, like many of the villains in “Outback horror films” is alienated and dispossessed, so he is especially resistant to seeing non-citizens cross into the contested space in order to compete for the way of life (and opportunities therein) he sees as rightfully his. Preceding the scene of mass murder, our group of characters seeking a better life in the United States (including actors Aquileo De Jesús Calihua, Dionicio Roberto Avilés García, Víctor Alfonso Zárate Mendoza, Claudia Angélica Amador Castellanos, Francisco Jhonnathan Toscano Usnaya, and Dolores Micaela Guzmán Méndez, all referred to as “Migrant” in the credits for the film) have arrived at a small barbed wire fence as their guide says to them “Welcome to the United States, scumbags.” Cuarón uses this ambivalent sense of being welcomed—ambivalent because they are technically being welcomed, but there’s nothing welcoming about calling someone a “scumbag”—to situate all of the characters in an uncertain relationship to the land and to each other. One of the larger points Cuarón reinforces with this scene is that these characters are in an insecure position everywhere they go. They are leaving a known violent place to enter an unknown, potentially welcoming place, for which they do not have citizenship and that most of them will not even enter in any meaningful capacity, as they are killed in the bad land in between.
This ambivalence and insecurity carry over to the second act of the film, in which Sam pursues the remaining members of the ensemble, eventually narrowing to young man Moises (Gael García Bernal) and younger woman Adela (Alondra Hidalgo) after he kills the rest. These scenes, mostly involving physical action rather than dialogue-driven plotting, do not function the way they might in a dramatic take on this sort of material. Sam possesses qualities that might make him a hero in a film that takes place in wilderness. He has experience and knowledge of the territory, and his opponents do not. He has a truck, a map and a weapon, all of which aid him in survival, yet he does not survive because of his desire to see others dispossessed. His opponents have only water. The film is shot in a way that isolates Sam and his dog against the land, then shifts to their perspective (sometimes through the sight of his weapon), creating a first-person identification between the viewer and this killer. The effect of this identification is that the movie problematizes the process of choosing sides—this is not the lone ranger we are meant to support. This technique to identify with the point of view of the stalking killer has been long debated within the slasher film subgenre, whose social issues and geopolitical insights are less consequential than they are here.
As Sam’s single aim is to kill those he sees as invaders, Moises and Adela want only to escape him. Their particular motives in coming to the United States are revealed, briefly, in the middle of the film. Moises, having been previously deported after a traffic violation, wants to return a teddy bear to his son. Adela is making the journey because her parents wanted to get her out of their dangerous neighborhood in Mexico. These small details of their individual stories humanize the characters just enough to distinguish their journeys from whatever prior notions the viewer might bring to the generic character of a migrant coming from Mexico to the United States.
Cuarón’s Desierto is a Mexican variation on the sources and texts of Drahos’ “The Imagined Desert,” featuring every element of the narrative formula that appears in “Outback horror films.” Sam is the societal outsider, perceived as alienated and dispossessed. The migrants are also outsiders in that they are non-citizens and seen from Sam’s perspective as agents seeking to consume the space, and they are under attack from the hostile badland sits creatures (snakes and a dog), and from the ‘other’ (Sam).
Cuarón evolves the tradition of the “Outback horror film” and related American filmmaking strands represented by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) changing up the roles of the characters on opposite sides of a contested space. Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wolf Creek, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre feature comparatively privileged characters that are essentially on holiday from their more civilized environments. When these characters venture into a less tamed, inherently violent space, the capably violent outsiders and/or forces of nature overwhelm them.
While Desierto does include some additional specific references to this type of movie, such as the way the land can disempower vehicles and the rogue, vulgar, lawless characterization of the villain, Cuarón removes the privilege of the characters entering the harsh environment seeking a better life. Moises and Adela are not on vacation. The level of violence they encounter cannot reasonably be read as comeuppance for not respecting the people and the land whose border they share. While they are attempting to enter the United States illegally, he is motivated by having previously lost access to his family and she is motivated by her family’s desire to free her from violence close to home. These vulnerabilities distinguish Moises and Adela from the kinds of characters who enter imprudently into contested spaces in other horror films of this type. The theme of Desierto comes from the way Cuarón varies the formula.These aren’t characters asking to be treated differently because of some privilege they assume, nor are they generic members of a migrant class. They are individuals whose stories provoke a merciful response. The horror of their journey is that they encounter a supremely unmerciful individual, a murderer with a killer dog.
Desierto is not exclusively a political film. Its use of action and horror genres and its shifting manner of viewer-character identification, allow the film to transcend any contemporary reading that would isolate it to a particular election, time, or land. As minimal as the exposition of the characters is, the choices they make reveal everything about who they are as individuals. Moises is merciful throughout the film, while Sam is not. These are not characteristics of any national identity, but rather fundamental ways through life that each man has chosen. The final exchange between the two dramatizes how their places in this world have shifted. Sam, having broken his leg and found himself at the wrong end of the gun, asks Moises not to shoot him, and instead to help him. Moises does neither, leaving Sam’s fate to the desert itself. Therefore Desierto’s concluding impression is to provoke thinking on how we treat others and how we would have others treat us, which is the substance of a law without borders.
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Desierto. Dir. Jonás Cuarón. Perf. Gael García Bernal. 2016. DVD.
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Drahos, Tom. “The Imagined Desert.” Coolabah. No.11, 2013, 148-161.
Holmqvist, Jytte. “Contrasting cultural landscapes and spaces in Peter Weir’s film Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), based on Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel with the same title.” Coolabah. No.11, 2013, 25-35.
O’Sullivan, Michael. “‘Desierto’: Action thriller or political parable for our troubled times?”
Washington Post. 15 October 2016. 29 December 2017.
Picnic at Hanging Rock. Dir. Peter Weir. Perf. Anne Lambert. 1975. DVD.