The Chihuahuan desert, along which the majority of the U.S.-Mexico border lies, is an environment of almost merciless purity. Setting his film on a remote border outpost within that desert, director Greg Kwedar follows suit with “Transpecos,” an atmospheric thriller with hardly an ounce of excess fat. Tracing the deadly aftermath of a vehicle inspection gone wrong, the director wrings an impressive amount of moral inquiry out of a fairly basic premise, and even if one senses several of the plot’s screws could have been tightened a little more carefully, Kwedar still offers a finely measured, handsomely crafted debut that should attract admirers on the festival circuit.
Taking place over a single day and night, “Transpecos” opens on three border patrol agents as they begin their shift at some nameless checkpoint. The three are easily recognizable types: Hobbs (Clifton Collins Jr.) is the hard-assed, politically incorrect old salt; Davis (Johnny Simmons) is the jabber-jawed young recruit; and protagonist Flores (Gabriel Luna) is an empathetic Boy Scout type of Hispanic heritage. The film takes its time with the three in the early going as they half-interestedly go about their duties, soothing the audience into the languid, sun-blanched atmosphere.
It’s late in their shift when Davis casually waves an American driver through, but Hobbs notices something amiss and goes in for a closer look. The driver tries to take off with Hobbs’ arm still stuck in the window, Hobbs shoots him, and the trio discover a cache of cocaine in his trunk. Before they can call it in, Davis pulls his sidearm on his fellow officers. Plied with drug cartel money and cowed by threats to himself and his family, Davis had agreed to make sure the car made it through the checkpoint: Now he’s forced to beg his partners to help him make the drop-off before the rest of the smugglers notice. Hobbs, whose arm was broken in the scuffle, refuses; Flores is torn but eventually comes on board, with the disabled Hobbs riding along as a captive passenger.
One of several thrillers to focus on drug-war border battles over the past few years, “Transpecos” sidesteps the brutality of “Sicario” or “Savages” (to say nothing of the Grand Guignol excess of “The Counselor” or “Heli”), and smartly focuses on the individual procedural elements of Flores’ dilemma. How does he find the drop-off point when Davis was never given a contingency plan? How long can he string along the dispatchers back at the station before all deniability is blown? And more philosophically, how far can he go to save his partner before the inertia of moral compromise becomes irreversible?
Perhaps the greatest strength of “Transpecos” is its ground-level specificity: No one here has the time to debate broader border-security issues or federal drug policies, and never do we get a glimpse of the drug lords or smugglers pulling the strings. To one degree or another, the only real options for any of the characters here are to become innocent victims or begrudging accomplices. This is a world where, as Flores quickly learns, self-preservation is often a zero-sum equation, and doing the right thing might land you in jail if you’re lucky. (As two stark late scenes make clear, the situation is no different on the other side of the border, nor higher up the chain of command.)
Eventually, however, “Transpecos’” naturalism keeps its slow boil from fully rolling. For all his pleading, arguing and threatening, Davis never quite seems as near to the end of his rope as the situation ought to require, and the party’s gradual descent into desperation doesn’t shred the fingernails as much as it could. What it lacks as a pulse-pounder, however, it makes up as a character study, thanks to co-scripters Kwedar and Clint Bentley’s well-honed dialogue and Luna’s flinty, nuanced portrayal of an upstanding man losing a little bit more of his composure with every bead of sweat.
Shooting almost entirely outdoors, cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron has a keen eye for his surroundings, best shown with one magnificent image of the trio backlit against the setting sun, and Kwedar pulls off a number of credible action sequences that skirt any budgetary limitations through clever cutting. The score, from brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National, is fittingly sparse and mournful.