A 2015 Mexican-French production co-written and directed by Jonás Cuarón, Desierto is an intensely interesting film. Its stark plot tackles head-on one of the issues that has convulsed the US (and defined its relationship with its southern neighbor) since the lead up to the 2016 presidential election. Desierto is a horror film about immigration—specifically an illegal crossing from Mexico into the US, and it thus joins the equally provocative Undocumented (Chris Peckover, 2010) in what I’m sure is poised to be a newly emergent preoccupation of the horror genre.[i]
Desierto’s plot is simple—perhaps too simple (one of its flaw). A group of Mexicans are covertly crossing the border when their truck breaks down and they are left to head in the direction of the US on foot. Enter Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his dog, Tracker, who picks off the members of the group one by one until only Moises (Gael García Bernal) and Adela (Alondra Hidalgo) are left.
This spare film, with its strikingly sparse dialogue, does little to develop its characters. There’s one scene, at night, after everyone else is dead, when Moises and Adela share their reasons for crossing into the US. Adela’s parents insisted she come, though she didn’t want to, because they thought she’d be safer. “If they could see how things are here,” she adds, in despair. Moises was living in Oakland with his family, including his son, when he was stopped for a broken taillight—“one thing led to another” and he ended up getting deported. In a film with little character development, Cuarón works hardest at getting us to empathize with the Mexican characters, who are clearly seeking a better life for themselves and their families. At the same time, though, somewhat ironically, the entire narrative of the film thoroughly debunks the idea that the US is safer than Mexico—that it can offer that “better life” to those who are able to make it across the border.
While Desierto makes some effort to develop at least two of those characters who are crossing from Mexico, it makes zero effort to offer any insight into Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s bad guy, a white American (accompanied more often than not by a Confederate flag) who hunts down the Mexicans for no apparent reason whatsoever. In the only scene that offers anything approximating motivation, Sam says to himself (and to his dog) that while he used to love the desert, he now hates it. It’s too hot and is “messing with my brain.” It’s unclear whether this is supposed to serve as any kind of excuse for his irrationally homicidal behavior.
Indeed, in Sam, I think we see the apotheosis of a new kind of horror movie monster: the white man.
You might respond that white men have always been horror movie monsters. I would argue, though, that until now, they have always had some kind of characteristic that pushed them toward a less- (or more-) than human condition, toward the unnatural, the monstrous. Take Halloween’s Michael Myers, for instance, of whom psychiatrist Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) insists: “That isn’t a man,” calling Michael pure “evil” and an “It.” And then there’s Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977)—set, like Desierto, in the desert southwest and about, like Desierto, a group of people being hunted by a white man. But the hunters—the cannibals—in Hills are, like Michael Myers, rendered as other-than-human. For instance, the “father,” Jupiter, is described as having been a “monster kid”—a “devil kid” who turned into a “devil man.” He isn’t just a white man; he’s expressly an unnatural monster.
Desierto’s Sam, on the other hand, is just a plain, all-too-human man—a man who is filled with a hatred that the film does little to nothing to explore or explain. And Desierto isn’t alone in offering the white man as (very human) monster. In fact, I think that the rise of the white man as horror movie monster is one of the significant trends of our decade. It’s a principal element in Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier, 2015), for instance, as well as Purge: Election Year (James DeMonaco, 2016). Both of these films feature white men who are full of a violent hatred that seems to have no cause, no reason. In both, the villains are accompanied by Confederate flags—and, in Green Room, there’s also the close association (as in Desierto) with dogs trained to hunt and kill, a linkage that heightens the mindlessness of the antagonists’ hatred.
The violent white man—the very human monster—also features in 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg, 2016), Don’t Breathe (Fede Álvarez, 2016), and Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017) , although these three films do a bit more to explore their villains’ hate.
And it’s not just film that’s exploring the white man as monster: AMC’s The Walking Dead has been doing it since the Governor (David Morrissey). In fact, Desierto’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan has since come to national prominence as Negan, a Walking Dead antagonist who is even more inexplicably evil than the Governor and whose psychology is even more neglected.
What explains this trend? To a large degree, your answer will depend on your politics. At the risk of falling into the trap of oversimplifying, it’s hard not to see it as connected in some way with the ascendency and election of Donald Trump, although it clearly preceded him. Could one argue that the white-male-as-monster (which is part of a discourse that’s much bigger than the horror film) contributed in small part to the white anger that helped get Trump elected? Or is the white male as monster a representation (and rebuke) of those angry Trump voters? Conversely, are these white men as monsters being taken by some as heroic, sympathetic? After all, horror movie monsters have long been figures who evoke ambivalent feelings—sympathy as well as fear and anger.[ii]
However you view this trend, it shows that horror film is still, as it always has been, at the very heart of what’s important in our culture.
Desierto is streaming on Netflix US.
[i] Interestingly, although immigration was clearly an issue in early, classic American horror—Dracula (1931) and Thirteen Women (1932)—it hasn’t been terribly prominent since. Though I’d be interested to hear if people disagree with that and / or can think of other horror films about immigration.
[ii] Two articles from very different political perspectives can be usefully read in relation to the rise of the white male as monster. There’s Frank Joyce’s 2015 piece for Alternet (reposted on Salon), entitled, “White Men Must Be Stopped: The Very Future of Mankind Depends On It,” as well as David Marcus’s “How Anti-White Rhetoric is Fueling White Nationalism,” from The Federalist (2016).