By: Daniel Chadwick-Shubat
Desierto is the ultimate game of cat and mouse. Except the stakes are real, and the situation relates in a big way to what’s going on in today’s society. It follows a group of immigrants who have to make their way across the U.S. – Mexico 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. 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 “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. 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 there are 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 end their lives without a blink of an eye. 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 only 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. Beautifully captured by cinematographer Damian Garcia, he really captures the vastness of the desert. It makes the audience understand the undertaking of a journey across the border and how much of a personal risk it is.
The main pull of Desierto for me was the performances of Bernal and Morgan. Both actors put in deeply emotional performances. Morgan stretching his range from anger to inconsolable grief and Bernal demanding 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.
Morgan as well puts in one of his best ever performances, showing impressive range. He plays the instantly hated Sam but as the movie progresses you sympathize for his character, because he only wants to get out of the hell he’s living in.
Desierto is a deeply provocative thriller that hits all the right notes from feature debut director Jonas Cuaron. Cuaron develops his own style that hits the right notes with the 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. But for those who love movies and have the patience to dig deep and dissect a movie, this is a must watch!
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