TIFF: Could Immigration Drama 'Desierto' Be a Contender?

As the Oscar race begins to come into focus, the best actor field looks extremely crowded, but the best supporting actor field does not. That being the case, some smart distributor ought to act quickly and pick up Jonas Cuaron's Desierto, a deeply disturbing drama about Mexicans trying to sneak into America, because in it Jeffrey Dean Morgan — supporting Gael Garcia Bernal and an ensemble of lesser-known thesps — brings to life one of the most hauntingly evil characters in the history of the movies. (The film had its world premiere and follow-up screenings this week at the Toronto International Film Festival.)

Morgan plays an embittered American redneck who drives around the border in his Confederate flag-waving pickup truck, sipping on booze and talking to his vicious dog Tracker — the most unlikable canine of all-time — as he scouts for border-crossers to pick off with his rifle. He does so with such a sense of purpose, pleasure and utter disregard for others' humanity — despite undoubtedly being a man who values "the sanctity of life" when it comes to, say, fetuses — that he makes the nutcase played by Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men look sweet and innocent.

The most frequent criticism of Desierto has been that it never addresses what's behind the hatred of Morgan's character in the way that, say, 1956's The Searchers does about what's behind the hatred of John Wayne's character — but, in this case, do we really need it spelled out for us? When people like Donald Trump and the Tea Party speak in such dehumanizing terms about people like the character Bernal plays in the film — a Mexican mechanic who wants only the opportunity to live with his family, and work hard for a better life, in America — is it any wonder that there are people like the character Morgan plays in the film?

Cuaron, 34, is best known as the son of Oscar winner Alfonso Cuaron, a producer of Desierto, and for directing a very funny short connected to Gravity, the film for which his father won the best director Oscar in 2014. But he made a well-received feature before that, Ano Una (2007), and proves beyond a doubt with Desierto — which is gruesome but gripping, aided by a thrilling drum score — that he has a distinctive voice and talent completely of his own. Bernal, who has worked with a lot of fine filmmakers, including Alfonso on 2002's Y Tu Mama Tambien, went out of his way before the film's second screening to call Jonas a "great director." Agree or disagree, he's definitely a filmmaker to watch.

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