America’s Second Amendment inadvertently serves to keep Mexican drug cartels stocked with U.S.-made, military-grade artillery in “600 Miles,” an understated, astutely gauged look at the way weapons flow south to arm Latin American infighting, as seen through the eyes of two characters on opposing sides of the law: a low-level Mexican weapons smuggler (Kristyan Ferrer) and the American ATF agent (Tim Roth) he kidnaps after a bust goes bad. Whereas many directors would be tempted to exploit the subject in over-the-top action-movie mode, first-timer Gabriel Ripstein opts for a less sensational, true-to-life approach suited for discriminating festival and arthouse audiences.
Following in the gritty-realism tradition of “Maria Full of Grace,” while acknowledging that the illicit traffic flows both ways — in this case, from north to south — “600 Miles” tackles an issue that’s gotten considerably less exposure in the news for the simple fact that Americans don’t seem to care that the corruption and violence so widespread in Mexico today is being carried out with weapons manufactured on U.S. soil. Putting overt political critique aside in favor of a more observation-based approach, Ripstein opens the film by detailing how a pair of young entrepreneurs — white-trash Carson (Harrison Thomas) and his tightly wound Mexican friend Arnulfo (Ferrer) — take advantage of America’s lax gun laws.
It’s a chilling sight as the nervous duo hit up sporting-goods stores and gun shows, steadily amassing a stockpile of over-the-counter assault weapons, which they easily manage to smuggle across the border, simply by stashing the weapons in the hidden compartments of a nondescript SUV. As it happens, these two amateur gun runners aren’t nearly as discreet as they think, attracting the attention of ATF agent Hank Harris (Roth) early on. According to the bureau’s controversial policy of “letting guns walk,” however, Harris does little more than note the serial numbers involved in suspicious weapons sales.
Seizing an opportunity when the two teens are temporarily separated, Harris attempts to make an arrest, only to be caught off-guard and badly assaulted by Carson, who flees the scene, never to be heard from again in the film. Badly shaken and uncertain how to handle the situation, Arnulfo ties up Harris and stuffs his bloody and unconscious body into the SUV, then hits the road, hoping to figure out a plan along the way. When Harris comes to, instead of panicking, he calmly attempts to reason with the young man, establishing a tenuous connection that just might save his life — though the no-nonsense film offers no assurances that its characters will survive the ordeal.
Early on, Ripstein provides just enough insight into Arnulfo’s character for us to see past his macho veneer. Between the way he overcompensates when sparring with Carson to the curious homoerotic subtext of a “Taxi Driver”-style moment before the mirror, we can’t necessarily guess what’s going through his head, and yet it’s perfectly clear that Ripstein isn’t interested in presenting yet another reductive Latino stereotype. As embodied by Ferrer (who played a gang kid forced to kill in “Sin nombre”), Arnulfo makes for a complex and ultimately unpredictable character, breaking down in tears one moment, but also capable of making tough split-second decisions when backed into a corner.
Creating an uneasy pressure-cooker situation in which these two men are forced to trust one another, Ripstein allows long stretches to go by in near-silence, gradually letting the tension build as the SUV travels farther south, deeper into potentially dangerous territory. Shooting mostly with natural light, the agitated camera watches as a documentary crew might, hovering nervously at the margins of some scenes, or planted firmly in the midst of others, refusing to budge or find a more dramatic angle. When Arnulfo finally delivers Harris to his uncle (Noe Hernandez), a mid-level cartel boss, the shot lingers uncomfortably as this potentially menancing figure goes about tidying his kitchen — a choice that goes a long way to deglamorize the “Scarface”-style myth of Latin American drug lords.
While not quite as austere or upsetting as fellow Mexican helmer Amat Escalante’s “Heli,” the film serves as a comparable corrective to bombastic Hollywood portrayals of south-of-the-border criminal activity. In a scenario like this, violence can’t be avoided, but when it does erupt, the effects are sudden, brutal and decidedly unromantic. One shot comes so unexpectedly, it rivals the shocking onscreen suicide in Michael Haneke’s “Cache”; a later firefight takes place almost entirely offscreen, while the pops of assault rifles are heard but not witnessed. The final scene takes place back in an American kitchen, echoing the cynical coda to Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men,” while slyly revealing fresh information about one of the film’s central figures.