Identifying Figures uses a modest family drama to show a different perspective to the border story.
The plot is one part slow-burn thriller and one part odyssey. As Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) tries to find her son, the story reveals a humanitarian crisis in Mexico. When she meets a deportee named Miguel (David Illescas), we see the impact of this violence.
A tense undercurrent keeps the story intriguing. There are clear hints of cartel violence but it isn’t spoken out loud. In one scene, a kind employee at the bus station gives Magdalena a clue through a door of a bathroom stall. Magdalena’s journey takes you through a naturalistic setting of the Mexican countryside, interspersed with otherwordly images.
Cinematography and sound design use magical realism to portray the unease of Magdalena and what she’s up against. Gang members are portrayed with horned silhouettes and tails against a backdrop of intense flames. After Magdalena finds out what happened, a reflection in a lake conjures the image of a world upside down.
Performances from the cast are good all around. The only thing that Magdalena and Miguel can do is to endure as long as they can. They can’t defeat the cartel, but managing to live despite their presence can be a form of resistance.
The result is an artful and subdued yet haunting thriller driven by a nuanced voice. Director Fernanda Valadez wants to shed light on the violence that has flourished in her hometown. Her aim is to portray a journey that seems like a descent to hell and successfully achieves this in a road movie.
Identifying Features highlights a world that is subdued by such a malevolent force that they seem inhuman, where the government doesn’t seem to care, and the people are browbeaten to accept all its chaos and loss.
The movie ends with a cruel plot twist that will make you gasp and leave you heartbroken. In this kind of world, there is only one outcome. Identifying Features is about the cycle of violence and the lengths people need to go to survive it.
Identifying Features is a well-acted, heart-wrenching, slow-burn thriller that expands our perspective about the Mexican border and the migrant experience.