Cast: Johnny Simmons, Gabriel Luna, Clifton Collins, Jr.
Director: Greg Kwedar
Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Greg Kwedar's debut feature Transpecos opens with with a prologue which encapsulate it's central theme, where a man casually kills another man against the backdrop of a deserted wasteland. This scene of violence is swift, merciless, and matter-of-fact; with the victim's pleas for mercy reverberating throughout the barren landscape like a mirage. It is within this geographical space where moral order ceases to exist; specifically the Pecos River near the Texas-Mexican border, that Kwedar charts his narrative concerning three Border patrol agents (Johnny Simmons, Gabriel Luna, and Clifton Collins Jr.) over the course of a day after an inspection goes wrong.
Like David MacKenzie's Hell or High Water; a picture which uses genre tropes in order to tell a very prescient story, Transpecos is similarly attuned to the rhythms and pacing of a Western, with occasional blasts of violence escalating the sense of tension. Unlike MacKenzie's solid if overpraised effort, however, Kwedar doubles-down on the idea of men thrown into a lawless world who are defined by geopolitical rules; in this case, America's war on drugs and immigration policies. This makes the film a tightly constructed thriller in which the three central characters must make decisions based on their ethical codes, as well as a bleak vision of the drug war/ illegal immigration debate.
None of this feels heavy-handed, however, because Kwedar keeps his focus narrow; allowing the three actors to get across the moral grey areas inherent within the film's premise. After a few scenes of playful banter between the central characters, rookie agent Davis (Simmons) claims that he must break the law when things take a turn for the worse during a routine border stop, which cause the grizzled leader, Hobbs (Collins Jr.) to gaze stoically into the face of peril without raising an eyebrow. The third agent, Lance (Luna) views the unraveling situation involving smuggled drugs, an irate cartel boss, and threatened family members more pragmatically, attempting to diffuse Davis's panic-stricken state.
What follows is a lean piece of genre filmmaking which uses violence sparingly but effectively, drawing sharp performances (Luna is especially superb as a man desperately trying to do the right thing under increasingly dangerous circumstances), and overall, displaying a welcome lack of moralizing. Lance's decision to choose empathy over nihilism is noteworthy in a location seeking to purge any sense of justice, but ultimately, Transpecos is not about life lessons or escalating a moral high ground. Instead, It's a character study about self-preservation in a world which cares little whether you live or die.