Desierto

Year: 2015
Director: Jonás Cuarón
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Written by Daniel Chadwick-Shubat

Warning, warning – this film is not entirely English! Oh the humanity! Just kidding, we know by now that you folks are into your culturally diverse cinema, so we know you’re going to love this latest addition to our World Cinema Club. ‘Desierto’ is the ultimate game of cat and mouse. Except the stakes are very real, and the situation relates in a big way to what’s going on in today’s society.

The story follows a group of immigrants who have to make their way across to America, via the Mexican border, to find freedom from gang-infested towns in Mexico. We see two sides to the story, one of Moises (Gael Garcia Bernal) a Mexican immigrant trying desperately to get back to his wife and children in the U.S.A, and the story of Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a patriotic American who hunts for “illegal” immigrants with his dog, wanting to protect his country from said “illegals”. Both sides of the story you can comprehend, but it’s Moises’ that you sympathize with most, understanding his reasoning for crossing the border illegally and seeing his humbleness and soft heart.

In this thriller, you get to decide who is the protagonist and antagonist; fun right? Obviously it’s very clear whom the director chooses as his protagonist and antagonist, but Cuaron leaves it very open, showing the good and bad sides of humanity. There’s no clear cut villain in ‘Desierto’; rather, two men battling against each other, both making decisions that they’ll regret in the long term. The major difference is that Sam is trying to kill Moises, while Moises is trying to stay alive. It’s an intense look at the thought process of two human beings, and how one sees these “illegals” as animals that he can hunt and kill without a moment’s hesitation. The other, only sees the next 1000km between him and his family, and how he’ll do anything to get to them. So you could definitely say one has better intentions.

The visuals on offer only serve to back up Cuaron’s decision to call this movie ‘Desierto’. Set in the backdrop of the Mexico-US border, visually this movie is a wasteland. A beautiful wasteland, captured impeccably by cinematographer Damian Garcia, the vastness of the desert a very striking image. It certainly allows the audience to understand just how much of a personal risk it is to undertake such a journey across the border.

The main reason I can wholeheartedly recommend ‘Desierto’ though, for me at least, is the performances of Bernal and Morgan. Both actors put in deeply emotional performances. Morgan stretches his range from anger to inconsolable grief, and arguably puts in one of his best ever performances, taking us on a journey from instantaneous hatred to a strange kind of sympathy, as we realise he’s just a man looking to escape his own hell. Bernal demands the audience’s attention with his emotionally charged performance. His expressions when he sees his fellow immigrants dying in the most gruesome way is so authentic, and when he kills for the first time, his expression is of pure shock and disbelief, and you bet it’s convincing. 

‘Desierto’ is a deeply provocative thriller that hits all the right notes, no mean feat for a feature debut from director Jonas Cuaron. Cuaron develops his own style, and one that seemingly pleases both audience and critics alike, as he won the Fipresci Prize for Special Presentations at TIFF, putting him on the prestigious list of past winners including Woody Allen, Terrence Malick and Paul Thomas Anderson.

Set in English and Spanish, ‘Desierto’ might be hard for some people to follow, we get that. But for those who love movies and have the patience to dig deep and dissect a movie, this is truly a must watch. It’s the perfect movie for people who are willing to look at the other side of the illegal immigrant argument, and I’d implore someone like Donald Trump to watch this, cause goodness knows he’s in need of straightening out.

Daniel’s rating: 8.4 out of 10
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