Transpecos

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Work­ing for the U.S. Bor­der Pa­trol, as por­trayed in , is not a cushy oc­cu­pa­tion, even on the best of days. The film’s cen­tral char­ac­ters con­tend with heat, iso­la­tion, and crush­ing bore­dom at their re­mote out­post on a two-lane high­way — and that’s be­fore they find them­selves in a messy sit­u­a­tion in­volv­ing a dead car­tel lackey and a few mil­lion dol­lars’ worth of hard drugs.

As the story be­gins, Flores (Gabriel Luna) traces the ev­i­dence of a drug mule’s jour­ney across the dusty earth with a green and ir­rev­er­ent agent named Davis (Johnny Sim­mons). When the trail of foot­prints leads to a small shrine con­structed to en­sure safe pas­sage through the desert, Flores cau­tions Davis not to touch the jumble of rocks and trin­kets. He doesn’t lis­ten. Back at the tiny guard shack where the agents have set up shop for the day, we meet Hobbs (Clifton Collins Jr.), the el­dest and most ex­pe­ri­enced among them.

And then a man driv­ing a beat-up sedan with a trunk full of co­caine tries to run the road­block. After a strug­gle, the agents man­age to stop the car, but the chaos is just be­gin­ning — one of them is be­holden to the drug lords and was un­der or­ders to let the car through. The nar­ra­tive twists and spi­rals on­ward, and Luna, Sim­mons, and Collins turn in shin­ing performances. Each has dis­tinc­tive fea­tures that ef­fec­tively tele­graph much about their char­ac­ters be­fore a line of di­a­logue is spo­ken.

The mid­dle of the film has a slow, dreamy pace that at mo­ments seems like an artis­tic de­ci­sion and at oth­ers like stalling, as if in an at­tempt to pad a short into fea­ture length. As it turns out, this is an ex­pan­sion of a 2015 short from writer-di­rec­tor Greg Kwedar and co-writer Clint Bent­ley. Nev­er­the­less, the longer run­ning time isn’t wasted. The film, set in south Texas, was shot in the windswept ex­panse of Luna County, New Mex­ico. It’s lonely coun­try, but it looks great on the screen. Ac­com­pa­ny­ing the panoramic vi­su­als is a haunt­ing score by broth­ers Aaron and Bryce Dess­ner of in­die band The Na­tional. Here they work in a post-rock vein, with spare notes hang­ing mourn­fully in the air, like a hazy mi­rage.

Politi­cians and pun­dits talk about the bor­der in terms of bi­nary dy­nam­ics. Le­gal and il­le­gal. Right and wrong. Our side of a wall and their side of a wall. sug­gests that the bor­der is an in­fin­itely more com­plex place, and one that cre­ates its own weather in terms of moral­ity. There is no black and white here. — Jeff Acker

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