'Transpecos': SXSW Review

A tense what-would-you-do thriller.

Three border patrolmen have a deadly encounter with a Mexican drug cartel.

The long arm of Mexican drug cartels stretches far across the Rio Grande in Transpecos, Greg Kwedar's serious-minded thriller about border patrol agents drawn into a deadly mess. Depicting corruption as inescapable, even for those wanting desperately to avoid it, the pic forces us to identify both with an officer on the take and with those trying to mitigate the damage he causes before he's beyond hope. Artfully made but wholly accessible for a mainstream audience, it features strong performances but no names in the cast who'll draw attention on their own. Earning respect on the fest circuit will be critical to theatrical opportunities beyond.

Rookie patrolman Davis (Johnny Simmons) and old hand Flores (Gabriel Luna) are working an isolated roadside checkpoint with Hobbs (Clifton Collins, Jr.) — a hardened, gravel-voiced agent whose fondness for the word "wetbacks" suggests he's ill-suited for this kind of work even before we see him barking at civilian drivers for no reason. He'd like to strip-search every person crossing his stretch of road, one suspects. But today, his suspicions are justified when a routine stop turns violent in a well-executed action scene. At the end of this arresting episode, the three officers are left with a dead driver, a wrecked car and the piles of cocaine that were hidden within. But when Flores tells his partner to radio back to HQ, the rookie nervously replies, "I can't do that." And draws his gun.

While he's tying his fellow officers up, Davis explains that a cartel boss he has never met has targeted him, forcing him to cooperate by threatening family members here and in other states. Hobbs is enraged, deaf to any explanation; but Flores, trying to see how this can end without everyone dead, tries to force his help on the terrified young man.

While all three performances are on target, the film belongs to Luna, as Flores scrambles to mislead the bosses he wants to alert until he and Davis can somehow fix this botched smuggling run. Throughout, he's trying to steer through practical imperatives — how to find a drop location, how to patch a gunshot wound — while silently weighing the moral cost of each compromise. His face asks the question he doesn't need to vocalize: At what point does his under-duress cooperation make him as guilty as Davis?

A fine instrumental score by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National is especially successful at highlighting the leads' isolation in this vast terrain, a place where no amount of watchfulness seems sufficient to stop lawbreaking both devastating and benign. Undocumented immigrants help right some of the wrongs their watchmen couldn't prevent at the picture's end; naturally it's them, not the cartel masterminds, who will be punished.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)
Production company: 8750 Films
Cast: Johnny Simmons, Gabriel Luna, Clifton Collins, Jr.
Director: Greg Kwedar
Screenwriters: Greg Kwedar, Clint Bentley
Producers: Molly Benson, Greg Kwedar, Clint Bentley, Nancy Schafer
Executive producers: Josh Braun, Rick Carter, Kristel Carter, Jon Halbert, Linda Halbert, Larry Kalas, Debbie Kalas, Michael Kwedar, Phyllis Kwedar, Walt Penn, Cheryl Penn
Director of photography: Jeffrey Waldron
Production designer: Peter K. Benson
Costume designer: Kyle Svendsen
Editor: Alan Canant
Composers: Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner
Casting director: Rich Delia
Sales: Submarine

Not rated, 85 minutes

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