An impassioned yet prosaic fact-based melodrama, “Backyard” registers undeniable impact by providing a dramatically sound, emotionally satisfying partial solution to a mystery that remains unresolved in the real world. Trouble is, this all-too-neat wrap-up may cost helmer Carlos Carrera points with the very auds most likely to appreciate the verisimilitude that prevails throughout much of this pic about the unsolved murders of hundreds of women over the past several years in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Still, the drama — recently selected as Mexico’s foreign-language film Oscar submission — should enjoy a warmer reception than “Bordertown,” the underachieving 2006 Jennifer Lopez vehicle that covered the same territory.
Carrera and scripter Sabina Berman ably intercut between stories of two strong-willed women: Blanca Bravo (Ana de la Reguera), a Mexico City cop who encounters indifference (or worse) from colleagues when assigned to the Juarez case; and Juanita Sanchez (Asur Zagada), a lovely young woman who travels from the backwoods of Chiapas to find work in a Juarez factory run by well-heeled entrepreneur Mickey Santos (Jimmy Smits).
The two plot threads predictably intersect in the pic’s final reel. To its credit, however, “Backyard” emphasizes that there’s more than one culprit responsible for the brutally murdered and horribly disfigured victims — most of them low-paid laborers — found throughout a region that serves as a “backyard” to the U.S.
Meanwhile, police and government officials maintain their distance, figuring, as one notes: “These murders are like a wasp’s nest. The less we shake them up, the better.”
Narrative momentum occasionally stalls while auds mull over the occasional plot hole. For example: It’s never explained how an outspoken radio commentator, authoritatively played by Joaquin Cosio (“A Quantum of Solace”), manages to avoid reprisal or repression while scathingly criticizing everyone (including Bravo) involved with the ongoing investigation.
On the other hand, “Backyard” does a creditable job of generating suspense by ably conveying Bravo’s fears and frustrations as she battles institutionalized sexism while following leads and connecting dots at the risk of her life. A nice touch: The aud is never entirely sure how much Bravo can count on her cynical partner, ambiguously played by Marco Perez (a vet of Carrera’s Oscar-nominated “The Crime of Father Amaro”).
The two lead femme performances are aces, though Smits (partly due to the way his role is written) is a tad too on the nose. Lenser Martin Boege and production designer Gloria Carrasco make invaluable contributions to the overall mood, particularly in scenes where the unearthing of human bodies gives desert landscapes the nightmarish look of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.