We’ve all heard the warning, “If you play with fire, you’re gonna get burned.” Well, that’s nothing compared with the consequences if you steal gasoline straight from the source — an extremely high-risk practice now on the rise in Mexico, where the combustibility of extracting raw fuel from open fields is amplified by the dangers of dealing with the cartels who control this emerging black market.
However volatile, these activities have become widespread enough that the locals now have a word for such outlaws: “Huachicolero” — the original Spanish-language title of director Edgar Nito’s attention-grabbing, ignition-ready debut, “The Gasoline Thieves,” which earned its talented helmer the best new narrative filmmaker title at the Tribeca Film Festival. For complicated reasons, Mexican crime stories generally don’t translate well across borders: Those that play well at home tend to feel exaggerated and over-the-top next to the cold-blooded ruthlessness of movies like “Sicario,” whereas festival titles such as “Heli” or “Miss Bala” can be too austere for mainstream sensibilities.
Nito navigates this tricky divide, avoiding the temptation to make a flashy, ripped-from-the-headlines melodrama in favor of a more realistic — but no less gripping — portrait of the sort of innocent who gets lured into stealing gas for the cartels: in this case, an impoverished 14-year-old with precious few opportunities for economic advancement. Displaying an impressive visual sense despite his small budget while never calling unnecessary attention to himself, Nito wastes no time in illustrating the incredibly high stakes. The opening scene thrusts audiences directly into a tense late-night run as two young men in a van bribe their way onto a privately owned gasoline field.
We can practically imagine the fumes emanating from standing pools of gasoline, around which locals can later be seen trying to fill plastic containers, and we cringe as one smokes his cigarette near the pipeline from which they siphon an unsanctioned haul. Things get nasty fast when the trespassers are busted by local gangsters, who shoot one in the face and leave his body half-stripped for the coyotes, flanked by distant oil rigs on the horizon. The message is clear: Life is cheap and loyalties uncertain, which doesn’t bode well for Lalo (Eduardo Banda), a teenager who’s already indirectly involved with the local petroleum business, working for Don Gilberto (Fernando Becerril) to resell cheap gas from the back of a rickety cart.
The job doesn’t pay much — certainly not enough to support his single mom (Myriam Bravo) or impress pretty classmate Ana (Regina Reynoso) — and comes with hazards of its own, underscored by the way, casually enough to alarm, he sucks the fuel through a tube to fill his tank. Scrawny and insecure, Lalo attempts to ask Ana out at school, only to realize that she’s already dating a pushy older teen named Rulo (Pedro Joaquin), who drives a motorcycle and flatters her with presents. If what it takes to woo Ana is an iPhone and other expensive gifts, Lalo is better off being single, but he’s too young to accept that.
Instead, Lalo looks for a shortcut, buying into the underdog logic the huachicoleros use to justify their illicit heists: If gasoline is literally flowing out of the ground, what crime is there in harvesting it themselves? From their vantage, it’s obvious that the so-called gasoline shortage described in the news is bogus, and that petroleum companies are just hoarding the stuff to drive up prices. Hearing these ground-level arguments, levied against the real resource rustlers — those institutionalized powers stealing fuel from under their feet — puts the bandits’ motives in perspective, even if their methods seem reckless, inviting death either by bullet or by incineration.
In Mexico, the corruption is so vast and the inequality so profound that there’s a kind of above-the-law heroism to what Lalo and his friends are doing. Nito passes no judgment one way or the other, apart from casting an actor who still looks like a child to play Lalo, which tilts the narrative toward tragedy each time something goes wrong. Lalo aspires to adult pursuits, accompanying his partners to a strip club after an early run, only to be stuck spying through a window when the bouncer doesn’t let him in. After saving up enough to buy Ana a smartphone, Nito rewards him with a romantic montage that feels borrowed from a Coca-Cola commercial — a happy experience swiftly checked by her jealous boyfriend.
The tone of “The Gasoline Thieves” may read as cynical, but its characters are hardly reductive stereotypes. Yes, the local detective takes bribes, but as played by Leonardo Alonso — who might have been the dogged investigator in another version of this story — he seems not to have another choice. But this town is too small for secrets, and some mistakes, once set into motion, can’t be undone. How else to interpret the spectacular fire toward the end, in which the countryside burns as Lalo’s situation turns hellish, sending flaming jets of gasoline high into the air? Such a waste — which, of course, is exactly Nito’s point, unforgettably rendered in the film’s final scene.