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article imageReview: TIFF 2015: ‘Desierto’ skillfully employs the desert’s vastness Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Sep 22, 2015 in Entertainment
Directed by the co-writer of ‘Gravity,’ ‘Desierto’ creates an agoraphobic experience in which one man takes it upon himself to protect his country’s borders with lethal force.
Border management is a major topic garnering international attention at the moment. However, illegal immigrants crossing the border have been a significant and common issue for some countries for decades. Still, some citizens are more offended by the breach than others and some have been known to go as far as attempting to unlawfully defend their nation’s perimeters. Thankfully the horror of Desierto is fictional, but it does speak to a certain, sometimes pervasive, sentiment.
Moises (Gael García Bernal) is trying to cross the Mexican-American border with a group of would-be immigrants to return to his family. Though most of them are prepared for the punishing trek through the desert and evading the US border patrol, they couldn’t have anticipated the bloodthirsty vigilante who intercepts their passage. Suddenly Moises becomes the default leader of a significantly smaller group just trying to stay alive. But Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his dog, Tracker, know the terrain and are not willing to allow a single migrant pass on their watch.
The movie begins by introducing the characters before their paths intersect. Moises and Sam are established as each other’s complete opposites. While the former is almost decent to a fault, the latter is righteously aggressive. The targeted group also consists of two guides; a young woman and her guardian; couples; repeat crossers; and a young man ill-equipped for the journey. Those momentarily spared the wrath of Sam begin a race through the rocks and bush in an effort to escape, but his advanced knowledge of the area always leads him to the frightened and declining company. In addition, the dog is nearly impossible to outrun.
This is basically a cat-and-mouse chase through the desert. The Mexicans are unquestionably out-matched with nothing to defend themselves, relying solely on the will to survive and blind luck, of which they mercifully get some. Conversely, Sam has a well-trained hunting and attack dog, a long-range rifle and scope, a vehicle and familiarity with the surrounding space, giving him every advantage over his prey. Even though it’s a simple tale of David vs. Goliath, there are elements in the film’s presentation that make it less commonplace.
In spite of the barren landscape, Bernal and Morgan fill the screen with their presences though they rarely share the frame. Each represents a different side of the story with absolute conviction of their characters’ beliefs. They also achieve these performances under what must have been very difficult conditions with the heat and terrain as both appear to do much of their own running and traversing. Bernal is positioned as the story’s hero, but there is really nothing special about Moises who simply refuses to give in to the homicidal vigilante pursuing them. He still makes difficult decisions to ensure his own continued existence, while trying to ensure he’ll be able to live with himself should he make it through. Little is known about Morgan’s character’s history, though some assumptions can be made and it’s obvious the actor has generated an understanding of his personality to play it so convincingly.
This is only writer/director Jonás Cuarón’s second feature, better known for co-writing the Oscar-winning film, Gravity. This film shares many of the same themes as the space-drama, including survival and the concept that there is nowhere to run. With the help of cinematographer Damian Garcia, Cuarón captures the overwhelming immensity and bareness of the desert in which these characters are trapped, communicating the devastating agoraphobia they’re experiencing.
The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and won the Prize of the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) for best film in the Special Presentations programme. Don’t miss the rest of our TIFF 2015 coverage.
Director: Jonás Cuarón
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Alondra Hidalgo
More about Desierto, TIFF 2015, Gael garcia bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Thriller
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