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'Desierto': Can Jonás Cuarón's action-thriller change the conversation about immigration?

Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Gael García Bernal in a scene from the film
Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Gael García Bernal in a scene from the film "Desierto".
Courtesy: STX movies

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The movie “Desierto” distills the issue of immigration along the US-Mexico into a spare action thriller. Directed and co-written by Jonás Cuarón, the film stars Gael García Bernal as one of a group of migrants trying to cross the border in a brutal desert while an American vigilante, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, tries to pick them off one by one with his hunting rifle. 

You know the sad thing about this project is that when I started 10 years ago I wanted it to be a fable – a parable– of something far, far away of what could happen if this hatred keeps growing. But now that the movie's coming out, sadly, it doesn't seem like a far away fable.

It’s hard to watch “Desierto” and not think about the recent debate around immigration in this country. But it was a trip across Arizona a decade ago, when laws and rhetoric around migrants was at a fever pitch, that first gave him the idea. 

When The Frame's John Horn sat down with Cuarón, they discussed what he learned about migrants through research and by shooting the film on the border. But they began with the revelation that it was an early low-budget Spielberg movie that helped him realize he needed to make his migrant tale into a thriller.

To hear the full interview, click the play button at the top of the page.

Interview Highlights

How Stephen Spielberg's 1971 movie "Duel" inspired the tone of "Desierto":

I was watching "Duel" by Spielberg, which is this amazing thriller where it's just so simple. It's a truck chasing a car throughout the whole movie. But, you know, even though there's no dialogue and the narrative is so simple the movie ends up talking about so many issues. You can see that truck as your bully at school or see him as your boss at work. So I felt it would be interesting to talk about the subject of immigration but talk about it through a genre because that way I could reach a wider audience and not, as they say, preach to the converted.

How Cuarón sees the motivations of the vigilante in the film:

Economical vulnerability...I do believe that economical vulnerability is one of the main cases people are angry. The U.S. is impressive– like it's one of the richest countries but also, as you travel through it, you also see regions that are filled with poverty. There's huge parts that are asking, why are they in that situation? On the other hand, we have politicians that are blaming migrants for that situation [and] in a country where there's lax gun controls. 

The film opens inside a truck full of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border where one woman is reading "The Migrants Prayer" out loud to herself in Spanish.

“The journey towards you, Lord, is life. To set off... is to die a little. To arrive is never to arrive until one is at rest with you. You, Lord, experienced migration. You brought it upon all men who know what it is to live who seek safe passage to the gates of heaven. You drove Abraham from his land, father of all believers. You shall remember the paths leading to you, the prophets and the apostles. You yourself became a migrant from heaven to earth.” — from ‘The Migrant’s Prayer’

Producer Alex Garcia, Producer Alfonso Cuaron, Director/Writer/Producer Jonas Cuaron, Producer Carlos Cuaron and Executive Producer Nicolas Celis seen at STX Entertainment's Premiere of
Producer Alex Garcia, Producer Alfonso Cuaron, Director/Writer/Producer Jonas Cuaron, Producer Carlos Cuaron and Executive Producer Nicolas Celis seen at STX Entertainment's Premiere of "Desierto" at 2016 LA Film Festival Closing Night on Thursday, June 9, 2016, in Culver City, Calif. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for STX Entertainment/AP Images)
Photo credit: Eric Charbonneau

Why Cuarón opened the film with "The Migrant's Prayer":

For two reasons. One, as I was doing research about the actual journey migrants go through that prayer is so important to them, you know? For migrants that prayer is a thing [that] they carry with them. And [it's in] all the shelters they go through while they're crossing Mexico because, it's important to note, that for Central Americans crossing Mexico it's probably more terrifying than for Mexicans crossing into the U.S. And that's also partly why I decided to call Gael's character Moses. It's because I really wanted to underline that notion that migration is not how we see it nowadays as a new problem. It's not a problem. It's a phenomenon. And it's a phenomenon that has existed since humanity existed. If it wasn't because of migration we would not have left Africa. We would not be here. Migration, like in the case of Moses, is part of our oldest narratives. So that's part of why I really wanted to start out the movie with that prayer.

What surprised Cuarón about the physical challenges of being in the desert on the border:

Honestly that people do that daily. We were in those conditions but we had shade, we had water, and still the conditions were really hard. And to think that people do that daily– and truly like going deeply nothing like what we did – to me seemed so heroic.

"Desierto" opens October 14th.

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