Writer-director Fernanda Valadez’s outstanding debut feature, the slow-motion missing-persons thriller Identifying Features, opens with a hell of a shot. Through a smudged farmhouse window, the camera watches as the teenage Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela) slowly emerges from a pall of dense mist. He trudges across a dry, fallow field, approaching the tiny building. Initially, the gap in the slightly ajar window perfectly frames him, but as he grows closer and larger, he drifts off-center, the grime on the glass rendering him hazy. The viewpoint is that of his middle-age mother, Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), who watches his approach through the window with trepidation. It’s as if she senses what’s coming. The camera pans left to match his arrival at the farmhouse’s open doorway. He stops there, doffs his ballcap, and sighs in resignation before declaring, “I’m leaving with Rigo. His uncle will find us a job in Arizona.” He’s made his decision, but he can’t look his mother in the eye when he announces it.
This extraordinary opening shot is, it turns out, a flashback. Magdalena has not heard from Jesús for two months. He boarded a northbound bus in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato with his friend Rigo (Armando García) and vanished. She doesn’t even know if he made it across the U.S. border. Rigo’s mother identifies her son’s remains from a photo in a local government office – one image plucked from binders spilling with dead fathers, mothers, and children, all of them presumed victims of drug-cartel violence. Jesús is not among them, however. At her son’s memorial, Rigo’s mother gives Magdalena a roll of cash and urges her to go north to ascertain Jesús’ fate: “You would do the same for me.”
Valadez employs a steady, deliberate approach in Identifying Features that at times evokes Lav Diaz and Lucretia Martel: long takes, sparse words, shots intended to lodge a key detail in the viewer’s mind. In the screenplay Valadez co-wrote with Astrid Rondero, the characters speak with care, never saying more than is necessary. This reserve is more than a stylistic affectation, however. Magdalena and other residents of cartel country have survived by keeping their eyes open and not drawing attention to themselves. When Rigo’s father, Pedro (Xicoténcatl Ulloa), gives Magdalena a lift northward, his truck is briefly menaced on the nocturnal highway by an SUV full of shadowy, whooping figures. Are they kidnappers or just rowdy kids? Pedro barely acknowledges the other vehicle, looking straight ahead, saying nothing, and maintaining speed. “Let’s wait till morning comes,” Magdalena sagely suggests after the threat has passed, and so they pull into in a motel parking lot for the night. Better safe than sorry.
Later, at another government office, Magdalena has a brief but crucial encounter with a fellow mother, a doctor whose son has been missing for four years. The woman has come to this waystation to identify the remains of a newly slain man, dead only two or three weeks – which, to her eternal regret, means that she erred years ago when she resigned herself to her child’s probable fate. She urges Magdalena not to sign any document that acknowledges her son’s death: “No matter what they tell you, don’t make the same mistake.”
Freshly determined, Magdalena asks around at the bus station where Jesús and Rigo originally departed, looking for a driver who may recall her son. No one wants to talk – there are rumors of whole buses full of passengers vanishing en route to their destination – but one anonymous soul has mercy on Magdalena, whispering a lead through the stall door in the ladies’ room. Magdalena follows a thread of dubious clues to a migrant shelter, and then to a village named Ocampo, all with the hope of locating and speaking to an elderly Indigenous man who somehow survived the roadside cartel massacre that took Rigo’s life. Perhaps, Magdalena dares to hope, Jesús is also alive?
Magdelena’s story is eventually entwined with that of Miguel (David Illescas), a young man who has been captured by the U.S. Border Patrol. When Miguel enters the film, he is at the end of an aborted journey, being processed by law enforcement and forcibly returned to Mexico. Valadez and cinematographer Claudia Becerril Bulos capture Miguel’s reentry in long, majestic takes, emphasizing both the bureaucratic banality and vaguely surreal quality of his defeated trek through the endless chambers, corridors, and checkpoints of the border infrastructure. In one eerie shot, a sea of red-gold taillights reveals the thousands of Mexican vehicles idling at the crossing, waiting to be waved through one by one. Miguel has nowhere to go but home, so he catches a ride to Ocampo, where his mother still lives on a tiny sheep ranch – or, at least, she did when he left five years ago.
When Miguel and Magdalena eventually encounter one another – meeting as their paths intersect in the damp, overgrown fields near Ocampo – they speak at a distance, with Miguel hastily attesting to his benign intentions before the older woman can turn heel and run. This is the way of cartel country, where trust is doled out sparingly and every speck on the horizon could be an approaching emissary of death. After all, anyone might be a sicario – or a cartel informant. When Magdalena observes warmly, “From behind, you look like my son,” Miguel responds, “From behind, we all look alike,” underlining not only the commonality of their experiences, but also how difficult it is to distinguish the harmless from the deadly. This is the world that the drug war has birthed: a veritable post-apocalyptic landscape dotted with ghost towns and crawling with body snatchers.
Valadez’s splendid widescreen compositions often recall those of David Lean and Sergio Leone, highlighting both the sublime beauty and blasted harshness of the rural countryside – as well as the characters’ insignificance and vulnerability in that environment. In terms of its story and motifs, however, Identifying Features resembles nothing so much as the contemporary, slow-cinema version of a classical Hollywood Western. The markers are all there: remote homesteads underneath yawning skies, dogged searches for the missing and the dead, ruthless bandits holding whole territories in the grip of mortal terror. It is a film of fantastic parsimony and often aching loveliness – there is not a wasted shot or line of dialogue in the whole thing.
Many American films about the Mexican drug war focus on the grotesque criminal acts it emboldens, the intractable challenges faced by law enforcement, and the ostensible horror-show lawlessness of life in border country. Identifying Features offers not only a valuable Mexican perspective but also a crucial shift in focus to the survivors left behind, who have only photos of tattered shirts and dirt-encrusted shoes in lieu of their loved ones’ remains. There is nary a mention of narcotics in Valadez’s film, which is much more concerned with depicting the perverse, everyday upheavals that the cartels have wreaked on Mexican life: children buried before their parents, people disappeared into the night, weed-choked outlines where towns once stood. Combined with the film’s arresting style, this makes for an acutely bleak and mournful experience that nevertheless refrains from slipping into exploitation.
The devastating potency of Identifying Features’ final twist depends on suspension of disbelief, perhaps at a level that some viewers may not be willing to entertain. In a feature that is otherwise so dependent on a strong, gritty sense of plausibility, this sort of swerve comes as a bit of a jolt. Likewise, the film’s late-game shift into a more horror-tinged tone is accompanied by bold stylistic choices, including the use of literally diabolical imagery that is either dazzling or hokey, depending on one’s taste. (This writer still hasn’t decided where they fall.) In general, however, the risks Valadez and her collaborators take with the film pay haunting dividends. In a pivotal, ingeniously rendered flashback scene – narrated without subtitles in an unspecified Native language – the film slowly slithers from hazy impressionism to phantasmagoric nightmare. Whether this mega-dose of heightened Catholic terror harmonizes seamlessly with the feature’s humane, dirty-fingernail realism might be questionable, but the effect is nonetheless heady and terrifying. With this gesture, Valadez emphatically dissolves the borders between everyday cruelty and timeless evil, setting up the grimmest shock of all: When the Devil comes, he will look just like us.
Identifying Features is now available to rent via virtual cinemas from Kino Marquee.