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