Monday, November 7, 2016

Foreign Film Spotlight: DESIERTO

Welcome to another installment of FOREIGN FILM SPOTLIGHT, where we showcase some of the best in foreign cinema to broaden your horizons. This week, we're turning our eye to Mexico and taking a look at the new movie Desierto from Jonás Cuarón, the brother of acclaimed Gravity and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban director, Alfonso Cuarón, who also produced this film.

I had the supreme luck of having Desierto show up in my local theater and did not hesitate to go and check it out, especially after seeing that Jeffrey Dean Morgan was attached to it. The story is simple, but brutal. Gael García Bernal plays a man names Moises, a Mexican immigrant who is accompanying a group trying to cross the border into America. Unbeknownst to them, an American sharpshooter, played by Morgan, is hunting them and, with his killer dog and sniper rifle in tow, doesn't plan to let any of them make it out alive. The result is an intense game of cat and mouse, and a thrilling battle for survival.

Jonás Cuarón does a great job of capturing the brutality of a story like this. The movie isn't overtly violent, but what little violence there is ends up being a lot more visceral than I had expected. It reminds me a lot of The Revenant in that regard. The other thing I noticed is just how good Jeffrey Dean Morgan is in this film. He seems to have a knack for playing absolutely horrible human beings (see Negan from The Walking Dead; the Comedian from Watchmen) and he's just as good here, making this sniper the exact kind of person you'd want to hate. Bernal does a good job as one of the immigrants on the run, though the immigrants are maybe the one weak point of the cast. While they're not bad or anything, they don't really turn in a performance as close to what Morgan does with the probable exception of Bernal. His intensity, especially at the film's climax, really matches Morgan's, making for an intense standoff by the end.

The film's plot isn't super intricate and, at times, I wonder if this would've made just as effective a short film as a feature. Though, Cuarón does manage to fill the running time with enough of the cat and mouse game as to keep the action interesting and entertaining, especially once the hunted immigrants start to fight back. The landscapes look beautiful, with the desert cliffs and skies captured wonderfully by Cuarón's camerawork. Its treacherous cliffs and steep drops provide an excellent stage for this battle to play out on, and seeing the hunted scramble as the sniper's dog chases after them is some tense footage to see. The other thing I'd complain about is some of the thin plotting with some of the characters. A lot of the immigrants, the people we're supposed to care about, don't get much in the way of character. Morgan's character gets enough personality and screen time that you don't need much in the way of character for him, but most of the immigrants end up being mostly just ciphers there to be hunted. Bernal's character gets the most characterization, and ends up being the one we care about.

While not technically Jonás Cuarón's debut feature (having directed 2007's Año Uña), I have a feeling Desierto will end up being Cuarón's gateway to bigger and better opportunities as a filmmaker. If this film is playing in your local cinema, don't hesitate to check this one out. It's definitely worth taking a look.

Tony's Score: 8/10

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