Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Desierto Movie Poster Image
Simplistic but gripping thriller has violence vs. migrants.
  • R
  • 2016
  • 94 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The movie doesn't offer many specific opinions on the issue of immigration, instead suggesting a simplistic good-guys-vs-bad-guys scenario. But it could still stimulate discussion on a topic that's a good deal more complex than how it tends to be portrayed.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Even the movie's hero resorts to iffy tactics and behavior in order to survive.


Shooting and killing from a high-powered rifle. Blood spurts, bloody puddles, dead bodies shown. Dog attacks, ripping at people's throats. Dog killed with a flare gun. Vehicle crash. Dead rabbit. A man gropes at a young woman despite her protests. Fall from height. Broken limbs. Rattlesnakes.


Strong language in both Spanish (with English subtitles) and English includes several uses of "f--k," "s--t," and "a--hole," plus "motherf----r," "ass," "balls," "hell," "goddamn," "scum bags," "jerk," "oh my God" and "Jesus Christ" (as exclamations).

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

The main villain swigs several times from a bottle of whisky, with no discernible effects. Cigarette smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Desierto is a thriller about a white American who ruthlessly hunts Mexican migrants near the countries' border. Violence is frequent and intense, with shooting and killing, blood spurts and bloody pools, dead bodies, animals killed in horrific ways, a vehicle crash, and other tense moments. Language is also strong, with multiple uses of "f--k," "s--t," and "a--hole" (spoken in both English and Spanish, with English subtitles). A man gropes at a young woman despite her protests. The villain regularly drinks whisky from a bottle and smokes cigarettes, with no consequences. It's an effective thriller, though perhaps simplistic in terms of social commentary around the issues of race and immigration.

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What's the story?

In DESIERTO, Mexican migrant worker Moises (Gael Garcia Bernal) makes the treacherous journey to America to join his family. When their truck breaks down, he and his fellow travelers must continue on foot, in record-breaking heat. Unfortunately, an American named Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) -- who sports a Confederate flag on his truck and has a huge rifle and a vicious dog -- feels he must take it upon himself to stop the "invasion." He easily picks off most of the migrants, but Moises and a young girl, Adela (Alondra Hidalgo), manage to evade their hunter until nightfall. But if they're to survive and escape the desert, they must make a plan.

Is it any good?

This minimalist thriller is not only expertly constructed and relentlessly gripping, but it's also very timely. That said, socially aware viewers may bemoan a lack of commentary in such a simple movie. Director/co-writer Jonas Cuaron -- son of Oscar-winning filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron -- previously co-wrote the screenplay for Gravity along with his father. Here he takes the idea of survival in a vast, harsh environment to a different place.

Cuaron's sense of place and action are excellent, even if the occasional hand-held camera (understandable given the terrain) calls attention to itself. Shots race up and down dry riverbeds and stone outcroppings, through cactus patches and piles of rattlesnakes. The movie's editing and music are also superb, clicking together as a fine example of tense genre filmmaking. The issues of racism and immigration aren't dealt with at all, other than that the white characters are bad, and the Mexican characters are good. But perhaps Desierto's lack of message-mongering will allow viewers to come to their own conclusions.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Desierto's violence. How does the filmmaker achieve this? What's the impact of media violence on kids?

  • What, if anything, do you think the movie is trying to say about immigration? What other factors/issues are at play?

  • Do you know anyone who's gone through the immigration experience? What have they told you about it? Why do you think some immigrants risk their lives to come to the United States?

  • One character has the opportunity to act out of revenge, but he doesn't; he walks away instead. Why do you think he made that decision? Compassion? Basic human respect?

  • How does this compare to other "minimalist" movies you may have seen (i.e. only a few characters, one location, and take place over a fairly short amount of time)?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love thrills

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