'The Wall of Mexico': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Courtesy of Visit films
An overlong but provocative fable.

Veteran actors Esai Morales and Mariel Hemingway join with some newcomers to spin a fantasy about rich Mexicans turning the tables on poor white people.

The Trump presidency has already stimulated a few features and documentaries and is sure to influence more over the coming years. One of the most intriguing, a movie having its world premiere at SXSW, is a role-reversing fantasy about a wealthy Mexican-American family that decides to build a wall to deter the intrusion of poor white people in the vicinity.

Aside from the provocative premise, The Wall of Mexico has a few other points to recommend it, though it can’t be considered a complete success. Directors Magdalena Zyzak and Zachary Cotler, working from a screenplay by Cotler, have made some miscalculations that undermine what could have been a powerful exposé of present-day xenophobia.

Problems begin at the opening of the film, which portrays a decadent party at the home of the Arista family. At their lavish compound, sex and drugs are in abundance, which is presumably meant to suggest that well-to-do clans are prone to the same excesses, regardless of their ethnicity. Point taken, but these scenes are unnecessarily frantic and confusing. Gradually, a story comes into focus. Tom (Jackson Rathbone), a young itinerant worker, comes to seek a job at the estate and is hired primarily to protect their artesian well, which has been raided by the white people in the vicinity who crave the mysterious but reportedly miraculous powers of this pure water.

Tom is being mentored by another Anglo worker at the estate (Xander Berkeley), and he quickly attracts the suspicious gaze of the family patriarch, Henry (played by veteran Latino actor Esai Morales). Tom also falls under the spell of one of the family’s daughters (Marisol Sacramento), who seems willing to share sexual favors and also entices the new employee to take cocaine. Gradually, however, more ominous threats emerge as the townspeople descend on the compound, and Henry uses a shotgun to ward them off.

The film never makes clear exactly where this enclave is located, but presumably it is meant to be somewhere near the California border with Mexico. (The picture was actually shot in Tijuana.) The cinematography by Lyn Moncrief and the production design by Tomas Owen help to bring the intriguing setting to life.

Some of the performances also bolster the film. Morales in particular plays his role with force and gravitas. This exceptional actor has not always received the feature film roles he deserves (it has been 30 years since his electrifying performance as Richie Valens’ brother in La Bamba), and he savors the opportunity to play a kingpin who is not a drug lord. The handsome Rathbone is not quite in the same acting league, but he conveys his character’s bewilderment effectively. Veteran actor Berkeley also gives a strong performance as the somewhat bigoted but savvy ranch foreman. And it’s fun to see Mariel Hemingway, 40 years after her breakthrough role in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, as the town mayor.

The two actresses who play the decadent daughters — Sacramento and Carmela Zumbado — are passable, but the subplot dealing with their hedonistic excesses is rather tiresome and misconceived. We grow impatient whenever the film cuts from the fascinating main action to this clichéd romance. The pic could definitely use tighter editing, and a deeper dissection of the conflict between the whites and Latinos would also have helped. The denouement, which reveals the secret of the mysterious well water, is somewhat anticlimactic. On the whole, however, The Wall of Mexico is well executed. Writer and co-director Cotler also contributes a delicate musical score. And the tale of a wall built to bar undesirable white people tickles the imagination.

Cast: Jackson Rathbone, Esai Morales, Alex Meneses, Xander Berkeley, Marisol Sacramento, Carmela Zumbado, Mariel Hemingway
Directors: Magdalena Zyzak, Zachary Cotler
Screenwriter-composer: Zachary Cotler
Producers: Adrian Durazo, Marla Arreola, Sarahi Castro
Director of photography: Lyn Moncrief
Production designer: Tomas Owen
Editor: Gabriel Foster Prior
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)

110 minutes