London Film Festival Review: Jonás Cuarón's Relentless 'Desierto'
by Amanda Keats
October 15, 2015
Jonás Cuarón's Desierto opens with a small group of people all hidden away in the back of a truck, crossing an expanse of Mexican desert on their way to try and cross the border into the United States. Their truck breaks down. They're told to get out and walk. We know immediately that route is not safe – far from it. And that's it: we are invested in their journey – even before the murderous Sam shows up and throws the tension levels into health-warning territory. Our hero, Moises (get the not-so-subtle Biblical reference there?), played by Gael García Bernal, works beautifully opposite villain Sam, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
The two characters are incredibly invested in their own goals – it's just that their goals are not remotely similar. Bernal is chivalrous and caring to those traveling with him but his primary goal is to get across that border, come what may. Sam is just as determined as Moises but he is not a cold, unfeeling man. Quite the opposite. He feels everything, intensely. He feels all the rage and anger you can imagine toward these people and is overcome with a teary delight when he slaughters the majority of the group, leaving Moises to flee with the few who remain.
The depth of these two leading roles is one of Desierto's greatest strengths. The movie could easily have been just a simple story of cat and mouse, good and evil, with no real depth. Yet, director Jonás Cuarón (Year of the Nail, Aningaaq) has made sure that his audience is truly invested in each of the characters, even the villains (yes there are more than one if you look closely enough!). They have back stories, personalities, character traits – but we never get bogged down in their stories. We see it, we take note, and we move on. Because there's no time to dwell – someone is trying to kill them after all.
Amid all the horror of this defenceless group being chased by a gun-toting lunatic, hell-bent on their demise, Cuarón piles on the tension, taking the opportunity to remind us that it is not just Sam who we should fear. If he doesn't get them, odds are that the snakes or the stifling heat of the desert will. Or they'll fall off a rock edge to their deaths before Sam even has the chance to kill them. These people are not just running away from one man and his gun; they are running away from death and the many ways it can catch up with them.
Then there's the dog. Oh the dog. Sam may be something of a loner, but he is not alone. He has his dog by his side, ready to find and kill these people if Sam cannot do it himself. While Sam starts by killing from a great distance, that damned dog gets up close and personal for his kills, adding a level of intimate gore to the film that makes it all the more horrific and nerve-shredding. When that dog is running after you – because there are times when it feels like it's you the dog is chasing – it's difficult to just sit still and watch. But you do, because you're so tense you can't move.
Desierto is relentless and builds the tension and drama with great care and precision, never lulling or feeling over-long. There is also never an obvious idea of how the movie will end – something which only adds to the intensity of the piece. Exhilarating and exhausting, Desierto will have you fixed on the screen to the very last frame.
Amanda's London 2015 Rating: 8 out of 10
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