Like a lens flare cast from No Country For Old Men or an arresting never-before-seen side plot from Breaking Bad, Transpecos sets us on the belt buckle region of the Mexican-American border. In a diminutive shanty of a migra outpost – in essence, a tollbooth and boom barrier – three glorified crossing guards witness hell break loose when a cartel scheme goes belly up. Greg Kwedar’s daring debut is part sun-scotched moral meditation, part adrenaline-fueled character thriller, handsomely brought to life with crisp, concise storytelling and effective, affecting performances that casts a meaningful glance at border politics and the wolves that lie in wait.
Over the course of 24 hours, three border patrol agents find their world turned upside down. At an off-the-beaten-path checkpoint, so infrequently patronized that the guards on duty know most of the people crossing by name and profession, Hobbs (Clifton Collins Jr.), the battle-worn and overly suspicious old dog, Davis (Johnny Simmons) a distracted and green around the collar rookie, and Flores (Gabriel Luna), a well-adjusted boy scout of Hispanic descent patrol the sandblasted ridges for drug smugglers, cartel lackeys and illegal immigrants humping their way through the vast desert terrain.
Following a failed scouting expedition that sees Flores attempt to impart his preternatural knowledge of the land to the young Davis as they track a pair of suspect smugglers, it seems to just a normal day in the life, conducting low-pressure searches and waving cars through out in the blazing Texas sun. Just as the jejune Davis is about to allow a man claiming he just been visiting a sickly family member passage, the patronizing Hobbs steps in to lay down the third degree. Turns out his suspicions were warranted. A crashed vehicle, a broken arm and a dead body later, the three border patrol officers huddle around $10 million of uncut cartel cocaine. Then things get interesting.
I personally expected the narrative to shift towards a Simple Plan plot at this juncture, where our three protagonists claim the spoils as their own, baggage intact, but that’s not the direction that Kwedar charters. His film is all better for. I won’t reveal the twist that has these three running for their lives against a ticking clock but let’s just say that Kwedar has manufactured a believable thrust that helps to organically motivate all three parties without ever feeling forced or manipulative. His smart manipulation of events is strengthened by virtue of his trio of actors firing on all cylinders. Though Transpecos could most easily be described as a thriller, it’s a thriller that depends entirely upon committed performances so I’m happy to report that all three are phenomenal.
Many great filmmakers have translated the nightmarish accounts of the Mexican cartel’s bloodcurdling savagery – just last year Denis Villeneuve honed in on the unknowable ocean of sludge that is our international policy regarding these south of the border criminal organizations while Matthew Heinemann crafted a palpably macabre cinéma vérité showdown between the drug cartel and a group of small-town vigilantes desperate to take their gente out of harm’s way – but even in a sea of similarly positioned stories, Kwedar’s hums with purposeful originality. This is his story, birthed from years of border living, wondering about in a day spent in the shoes of those conscripted to guard our nation’s fringes.
There’s splashes of Coen Brothers in the way that narrative circles close up suddenly and without warning, leaving the viewers’ emotions in the dust, racing to catch up, but Kwedar holds the reins impressively tight, ensuring that his film always feels like a product unique to his particular voice and not a mere derivation of the great works set to a similar landscape that preceded his. This feat keeps us from ever to being able to forecast where Transpecos will go next, one of the great delights inherent with experiencing the work of a new preeminently promising filmmaker.
Clean, meditative cinematography from Jeffrey Waldron contributes a sharp visual barb to the moral dismay that Kwedar fiddles with. A phenomenal tableau has the three cast in black shadows, backlit from the fiery sun making its metaphorical escape in the background. As the light flees the scene, so too does hope and the possibility of redemption. By the time Hobbs, Davis and Flores have figured out exactly what they’re up against, escape is impossible. That is, as impossible as it will be to tear yourself away from Kwedar’s striking, emotionally rich meditation on loyalty under duress.
CONCLUSION: Greg Kwedar’s debut film ‘Transpecos’ is a potent border fiction that matches high tension thrills with significant characters, played to perfection by Johnny Simmons, Clifton Collins Jr. and Gabriel Luna. Gritty and grim, Kwedar’s first makes a bold statement and showcases a filmmaker well on his way to breaking out big time.