You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Transpecos’

Director Greg Kwedar makes an impressive feature debut with this atmospheric thriller set on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Gabriel Luna, Johnny Simmons, Clifton Collins Jr., Luis Bordonada. (English, Spanish dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4687464/

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.

Film Review: 'Transpecos'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (competing), March 14, 2016. Running time: 86 MIN.

Production: An 8750 Films production. Produced by Molly Benson, Greg Kwedar, Clint Bentley, Nancy Schafer. Executive producers, Josh Braun, Rick Carter, Kristel Carter, Jon Halbert, Linda Halbert, Larry Kalas, Michael Kwedar, Phyllis Kwedar, Walt Penn, Cheryl Penn.

Crew: Directed by Greg Kwedar. Screenplay, Kwedar, Clint Bentley. Camera (color), Jeffrey Waldron; editor, Alan Canant; music, Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner; production designer, Peter K. Benson; costume designer, Kyle Svendsen; sound, Sean McCormick; supervising sound editor, Mac Smith; re-recording mixers, Christopher Barnett, Brandon Proctor; casting, Rich Delia.

With: Gabriel Luna, Johnny Simmons, Clifton Collins Jr., Luis Bordonada. (English, Spanish dialogue)

More Film

  • Bluebird review

    SXSW Film Review: ‘Bluebird’

    As affectionate as a love letter but as substantial as an infomercial, Brian Loschiavo’s “Bluebird” may be of most interest to casual and/or newly converted country music fans who have occasionally wondered about the songwriters behind the songs. There’s a better than even-money chance that anyone who’s a loyal and longtime aficionado of the musical [...]

  • ‘Wonder Park’ Tops Studios’ TV Ad

    ‘Wonder Park’ Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending for the Fourth Week in a Row

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the TV advertising attention analytics company iSpot.tv, Paramount Pictures claims the top spot in spending for the fourth week in row with “Wonder Park.” Ads placed for the animated film had an estimated media value of $5.18 million through Sunday for 1,718 national [...]

  • Michael B. Jordan Jordan Vogt-Roberts

    Film News Roundup: Michael B. Jordan, Jordan Vogt-Roberts Team for Monster Movie

    In today’s film news roundup, Michael B. Jordan is producing a creature feature, billiards champ Cisero Murphy is getting a movie, the sixth Terminator movie gets a title, and Graham King receives an honor. PROJECT UNVEILED More Reviews SXSW Film Review: ‘Bluebird’ Video Game Review: 'The Division 2' New Regency and Michael B. Jordan’s Outlier [...]

  • Nicolas Cage

    Nicolas Cage to Star in Martial Arts Actioner 'Jiu Jitsu'

    Nicolas Cage will star in the martial arts actioner “Jiu Jitsu,” based on the comic book of the same name. The cast will also include Alain Moussi, who stars in the “Kickboxer” franchise. Dimitri Logothetis is producing with Martin Barab and directing from a script he wrote with Jim McGrath. Highland Film Group is handling [...]

  • Chinese success of Thai film "Bad

    Chinese, Thai Shingles Pact for Co-Production Fund at FilMart

    A deal to establish a 100 million yuan ($14.9 million) co-production fund between China and Thailand was struck at FilMart on Tuesday to help launch TV and film projects that will appeal to Chinese and Southeast Asian audience. The deal that was struck by China’s Poly Film Investment Co., TW Capital from Thailand and Thai [...]

  • Kevin Tsujihara

    Kevin Tsujihara's Ouster Kicks Off a Week of Major Disruption in the Media Business

    The sudden ouster of Warner Bros. Entertainment chief Kevin Tsujihara kicked off what is likely to go down as one of the most extraordinary weeks in Hollywood history, spelling enormous turmoil and transition across the media landscape. In addition to the news about Tsujihara, which comes amid a wider shake-up of leadership at AT&T’s WarnerMedia, [...]

  • Buddha in Africa

    More Than Half of Films at Hot Docs Film Festival Are Directed by Women

    More than half of the films playing at Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival, are directed by women, the Canadian event said Tuesday. The festival’s 26th edition, which runs April 25-May 5, will screen 234 films, with 54% of the directors being women. In the competitive International Spectrum program, notable films receiving their world [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content