There’s a visceral, wordless trawl through earthly hell straining to get out from beneath the overwrought script clichés of “Tijuana Bible,” a long-awaited third feature from Frenchman Jean-Charles Hue that echoes, but doesn’t quite fulfil, the promise of his electrifying 2014 breakout “Eat Your Bones.” Following two lost souls through a veritable obstacle course of human horrors in the volatile border city of the title, Hue’s perspiration-soaked latest confirms his knack for capturing milieu, as well as his tough, blunt-force interest in everyday violence. Yet those assets are shackled here to a narrative that, with its white-savior overtones and hokey good-versus-evil dynamics, doesn’t feel half as convincing: Every time Jonathan Ricquebourg’s vigorous, tactile camerawork is permitted to lead the storytelling, the film’s pulse quickens.
Following a low-key festival tour that began with a Busan premiere last fall — in contrast to “Eat Your Bones,” which made waves at Cannes in 2014 and built a steady critical following from there — “Tijuana Bible” went on to release in France on July 29. Internationally, a future on streaming platforms seems likelier than extensive theatrical exposure, though strong leading turns from “Peaky Blinders” regular Paul Anderson and Mexican star Adriana Paz will aid crossover audience interest in this English- and Spanish-language production.
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For Hue, the film represents the culmination of his extensive travel and research into the Tijuana region, which has thus far yielded the 2017 short “Tijuana Tales” — to which the feature bears light narrative similarities — and the mid-length 2018 documentary “Topo y Wera,” which anticipates the interest shown here in the city’s poorest, most marginalized communities. That dedicated on-the-ground experience is felt in “Tijuana Bible” through the film’s vital, throbbing sense of place as it weaves around tight, decaying alleys, grimy hole-in-the-wall bars and makeshift taco stands. Ricquebourg’s camera moves like a knowing, restless tour guide, often in bright, bleaching daylight that leaves its derelict characters harshly exposed, scuttling for dark corners and seamy undersides.
According to American ex-marine Nick (Anderson), Tijuana is where society’s placeless people come to get permanently lost: “God don’t know where we are here,” the meth-addicted, PTSD-afflicted drifter notes near the outset, in a line typical of a script that often shoots for a stylized, hard-boiled pithiness slightly at odds with the vérité aspects of the filmmaking. We’re not told much more about Nick’s backstory or intended forward path: The film relies heavily on Anderson’s expressively storied, Van-Gogh-with-a-sunburn face to fill the interior gaps in this most opaque of protagonists.
Nick is clearly not a man inclined to let anyone in, though he comes closest with Ana (Paz), a decent, vulnerable young woman newly arrived in Tijuana on a search mission: Her brother Ricardo, a Mexican deported after a stint in the U.S. army, has allegedly wound up in the area, though whether he’s dead or alive is a question the film teases out for much of its short running time. Nick’s assistance in her quest accounts for the bulk of the slender, straightforward story, which drags them through the most desolate dens of the Tijuana underworld — much of it presided over by the one-dimensionally villainous gang lord Topo (Noe Hernandez), whose near-literally demonic presentation again chips away at the film’s authenticity.
None of these characters, in short, are quite as credible as the vivid, peelingly textured world in which Hue and his ace below-the-line crew have situated them. Where Hue’s films “The Lord’s Ride” and “Eat Your Bones” felt lived inside-out when it came to their granular, unsparing depiction of the Yeniche Gypsy community in Northern France — cast heavily with untrained locals — “Tijuana Bible” never quite sheds its sense of pulpy contrivance. That’s despite thoughtful, worn-in work by Anderson and Paz, both trying hard to complicated their respective lone-ranger and good-woman archetypes.
The film’s bristling political anger against forces north of the border is diminished, too, by dialogue that leaves no direct sentiment unspoken: “We were willing to fight and die for this nation, and they threw us away like trash!” one dissolute ex-soldier exclaims. The statement couldn’t be more redundant, as the discarded debris — human and otherwise — in Tijuana visibly fills every frame of this carefully observed, brutally beautiful postcard from the edge. There’s no need to write anything on the back.