When Jonás Cuarón initially conceived Desierto 10 years ago, he couldn't have realized that he'd end up making a movie that was as tied to the cultural zeitgeist as the one he ended up making. The film is a sun-drenched horror thriller that stars Gael Garcia Bernal as one of a group of undocumented immigrants crossing into the U.S. from Mexico at the Arizona border, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a talk-radio obsessed, gun-loving American who takes aim at them as they do, and Cuarón's initial fear was that the movie would seem too far-fetched. Then Donald Trump happened. Suddenly, Morgan's character went from a cautionary fable to something that seemed all too realistic to the filmmaker.
"When I started working on this project, I really saw this film as a parable of where we can arrive as a society if we keep promoting so much hatred," Cuarón says. "I even thought that people would criticize it for being far-fetched. But after this electoral year, where a candidate has bombarded a whole country with all this rhetoric of hatred, and on the other side—both from the Mexican government and all the other politicians—we experience nothing but silence in response, I find it hard to believe that the situation is that far-fetched. I wish it was."
Desierto packs its political punch within the structure of a taut horror film, with Morgan's character playing the monster, albeit one whose humanity is more present than most. And it's not the only horror thriller engaging politically these days. Desierto comes after The Purge: Election Year and The Purge: Anarchy, as well as Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room, and a few months before Jordan Peele's Get Out.
The Purge franchise started as a fairly standard home-invasion thriller with a compelling hook but quickly evolved into a thrillingly violent contemplation of class issues, culminating in this summer's Election Year. Shooting on that film began in September of 2015, and the story, about a blonde woman running for President against a candidate who promotes violence, seemed to very intentionally reflect the current political environment. Trump and Clinton were already looking likely as their party's respective nominees at that point, and when the film was finally released, it used "I Purge To Keep America Great" in its marketing campaign. Green Room turned its lens on the politically-charged world of Nazi skinhead punk rock, using white supremacists with shaved heads and red laces in their boots as its villains. And Get Out, which sees Peele abandon the broad comedy of Key & Peele for a Stepford Wives-style satire, puts race in the forefront of a horror movie under the production aegis of horror maestro Jason Blum's Blumhouse imprint. Add Desierto to that, and horror film looks a lot like a reflection of our politically divisive times.
Cuarón laughs when asked why he thinks horror movies and politics go together so well. "Have you watched the debates?" he says. "The reason it's interesting to talk about these political issues through horror is that sometimes stuff like immigration, when you approach them through the rhetoric of a drama or a documentary, the ideas end up connecting with the audience and their intellect. What I like about horror and thrillers is that you can connect with the audience in a pure, visceral way. When you're talking about issues like hatred, and where hatred can take us as a society, I feel like it's more impactful to connect with the audience straight through the guts, rather than trying to argue with them. Some things are just not debatable. That's what I find really important in horror—it doesn't really open much to debate. It just pulls the audience by its emotions."
Desierto's not a polemic. The movie's politics are at the core of the story it tells, but Cuarón learned from working on movies with his father—Oscar winner Alfonso Cuarón—and especially on Gravity, which the two co-wrote, that he was interested in movies that don't stop once they start telling their story. There are moments that humanize both Bernal's character and Morgan's, but those quiet movies are few and far between—instead, his attention is focused on acceleration. There are moments where Morgan spouts talk-radio speech, or quiet moments that show that there's a backstory to Bernal, but there are no monologues, no explanations, and no real slowdowns. When it comes to the horror of the politics, that's mostly background in the film, even if it took to the forefrton of the marketing campaign. Earlier this month, the Mexican distributor for the film cut new versions of the trailer together, one featuring a speech by Trump and another with shockingly racist tweets from Americans who watched the domestic trailer.
"I saw it as a rollercoaster for the audience, so they can experience a fraction of the horror that people actually experience when they cross through the desert. That was the main idea, and we tried to grab that non-stop concept and apply it to Gravity," he says. "Once the action starts at minute 10, it doesn't stop. And then, through that, my intention was to change the narrative and describe immigrants as heroes, instead of faceless monsters on the other side of a fence."