A nice-enough young man kills a nice boy. One is Mexican, the other white. One will be buried. The other will learn an edifying lesson about bias. Can you guess which is which? The Tex-Mex border drama “No Man’s Land” — in select theaters, on digital platforms and VOD — arrives at a time when the good intentions of white filmmakers are often not good enough to address the grievances of filmgoers of color. Filmmaking brothers Conor and Jake Allyn strive to take on — and humanize — the tensions around migration in their drama that starts off in the titular area between the Rio Grande and the Texas border and then follows its hero on a reverse migration south into Mexico.
Rending events and soulful reckoning take place for all concerned, but the movie’s most dire consequences are reserved for characters who are Mexican. That says something about the filmmaker’s ambitions — which are both sincere and remedial. “No Man’s Land” has a sturdy ensemble and moments of understated warmth, but what remains striking is how much narrative effort goes into teaching one character about empathy.
The film begins with parallel stories set on a collision course. Jake Allyn — who co-wrote the script with David Barraza — plays Jackson, son of a loving, struggling Texas rancher. In addition to being a good son with a fondness for the rough labor of the ranch, Jake’s a major league pitching prospect. As the film opens, his mom and dad are hosting a Yankees scout in their modest living room. Mom Monica (Andie MacDowell) beams at the sink, thinking about her son in New York City. Dad Bill (Frank Grillo) negotiates.
South of the Rio Grande, another father, Gustavo (Jorge Jimenez), is looking out for his son’s future — with no less love. He’s returned from the U.S. to ferry Francisco across the border. He has a green card, but Francisco’s petition was rejected. Gustavo’s nickname is “Shepherd” because of the one-time coyote’s Christian-infused sense of duty and care.
Protecting Jake’s pitching arm is one of the reasons his dad and brother Lucas (Alex MacNicoll) tend to handle the problem of trespassers without him. “Come help your mother,” Monica says to Jake, after they’ve ridden off one afternoon. Their land has become a route north. Their wire fences get cut. Their cattle escape. It makes a hard-fought life tougher still. When Bill and Lucas grab rifles to confront migrants crossing their land, they purposefully leave Jake’s behind. One night he follows them.
An ensuing, increasingly chaotic confrontation of shouts and waving guns ends with Francisco bleeding out, Lucas shot and, after it becomes clear who pulled the trigger, Jake hightailing it absurdly across the Rio Grande to Mexico on his horse Sundance. He’s being chased with reasonable consternation by Ramirez, a Texas Ranger portrayed by George Lopez.
Right before everything went fatally south, Ramirez was sitting in this SUV driver’s seat studying Spanish. It’s a nice touch, a reminder that not every Mexican American speaks Spanish. As the law man, Lopez turns out to be the wonderful wild card in the cast. “No Man’s Land” has a few amusing moments, but the comedian isn’t the jokester, he’s the straight man. This more dramatic role invites audiences so see Lopez anew. Lopez makes it clear that beneath Ramirez’s professional demeanor and craggy face exists a worn tolerance for Jake and his family’s cultural unawareness.
Jake’s journey south is meant to buff narrow notions of Mexican migrants but also of Mexico. But whose notions exactly? Jake’s escape is quickly fraying when a rancher, his son and lovely daughter pick him up on a highway, an empty horse trailer fortuitously hitched to their SUV. He’s offered a gig on a much nicer spread than his family’s ranch in Texas. There is even a hint of romance. But Francisco’s death haunts him; Ramirez is tracking him, as is Gustavo; and atonement is tugging at him. Hard.
Mexico proves a welcoming place, with an exception. Luis, a dyed-hair punk who has been trouble from the start, goads Gustavo — like a little red devil whispering in his ear — to avenge Francisco’s killing. Andrés Delgado takes to his character with a fine tenacity, but the baddie derails the film’s more nuanced tone. A revved-up chase through woods is a clumsy and desperate device, all the more so for coming after one of the movie’s subtlest scenes. On a bus to what he hopes is penance, Jake sits across from a woman reading to her son in English. When he begins interacting with the boy, the mother (a very deft Tiaré Scanda) listens to Jake’s nattering biases and faltering epiphanies with a critical, yet gentle expression of hmm. That would be a fairly apt response to “No Man’s Land.”