The Border (1982)

Director: Tony Richardson

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Valerie Perrine

Release date: January 31 (US). Didn’t think I’d seen any of this but on viewing I recognised the last 15 minutes or so. Must’ve been channel hopping one night in the distant past and caught the end of it. May contain clumsy shotguns and spoilers…

Charlie is an immigration official tracking down illegal workers. It’s a strange, soul-destroying existence; he nabs enough collars to meet his target while cynical employers are free to replace the departing migrants with another couple. It’s a pointless merry-go-round. At the behest of his wife, he moves to El Paso to join a border patrol. Marcy wants to live the high life and Charlie’s current wages won’t cover it. They still don’t and he has to hook into his partner Cat’s shady dealings in cheap labour to catch more loot. He uses this partnership to try and help a young Mexican woman, Maria, get across the Tex-Mex border along with her younger brother and her baby. But when the baby is snatched while she is being detained by border guards at a holding area, Charlie takes it upon himself to find the toddler before it is sold on the lucrative black market…

The super-glue prank wasn't funny anymore...

Even at the beginning, Charlie (Jack Nicholson) is pretty much worn down and frazzled. He’s had enough of bushwhacking migrants, would be far happier working in parks and recreation feeding the ducks. Such is the haranguing by the irritating Marcy (Valerie Perrine) who just wants them to be ‘happy’ he reluctantly up-sticks to go live in a duplex alongside her best friend Savannah (Shannon Wilcox) in paradise: “It’s everything we ever dreamed of,” Marcy tells Charlie. “I never dreamed of living in El Paso,” he returns drily. There follows a short scene pre-relocation in the darkened trailer home, with Charlie looking distinctly, well, Jack Torrance-ish. Despite further set-up – Cat’s immigrant-smuggling scumbag contact JJ (Jeff Morris) claims Charlie is ‘crazy’ (though there’s no evidence of this), plus Charlie striking Marcy across the chops when he finally snaps at her unsustainable spend-spend-spend policy – he doesn’t descend into psychotic lunacy; Charlie is methodical, firmly stating his moral position to Cat (Harvey Keitel) before sparking into an unlikely action hero for the finale. The film, earnest and dignified till now, goes off on a mad ‘un.

"Gedd-do-da chopp... erm... van..."

For me, The Border doesn’t grip. It leans too heavily on coincidence and forced device. How is Charlie ever going to connect with Maria (Elpidia Carrillo), the young mother escaping from an earthquake back home (not the film’s finest moment, either) and searching for a better life? Driving home, for no reason at all he exits the vehicle, scrabbles down a slope and wades into a river to get a better look at the migrants on their side of the border. Maria, of course, is front and centre. It’s all a bit no-comprende, but the relationship is established. But it’s off the back of an arbitrary and out of character decision; where did this sudden interest in his ‘quarry’ come from? He’s not even on duty. I mean, she gets his hubcaps back (stolen minutes before by her brother) other than that I’m not feeling it. He’s seen her once and only briefly; surely the connection with Maria isn’t yet deep enough to propel him. Charlie’s forays into “wetback” territory come across as obsessive, not necessarily as that of a concerned individual and it’s no surprise to see the shit get kicked out of him in a grotty bar where Maria is being groomed as a prostitute. Even a dollop of phlegm in the face courtesy of Maria later on doesn’t deter him, just makes him more single-minded. Charlie is being truthful when he tells her he just wants something good to come out of his job and that means seeing Maria and her baby to safety. He wants nothing in return, only a clean conscience.

Well, they ARE called railway sleepers...

With the whole ‘searching for a better life’ ideal of the migrants there seems to be a message. That is, it isn’t guaranteed to be any better over the line in the land of plenty. Marcy and Savannah seem unaware that they are living in a wasteland (apologies to the residents of El Paso – I’m responding to the film depiction), hitching their tails to the consumerist juggernaut. ‘Do you really want to be like this?’ the film appears to ask the fleeing Mexicans. Marcy won’t listen to Charlie at all when it comes to finances, or lack thereof. I felt sorry for him. Every time he comes home from work Marcy has shipped something else into the duplex. Even when he gets up in the morning there’s likely to be a 3-piece suite arriving, or a water bed. And she’s buying everything on the never-never; Marcy describes credit like it’s some kind of cunning sorcery able to circumvent the parting with real money. She gets more stupid and more uncomprehending as the film progresses. In one ludicrous scene, when Charlie has temporarily brought the injured Maria home after an accident, Marcy prefers to believe that he is running away with Maria forever rather than it being job-connected. It’s almost as if she has turned their lives into a television soap opera – she’s in another world by this point in the film.

A professional distance between Charlie and Red...

Things go awry by the end, cutting-wise. It’s all over the place (though it’s not exactly consistent anyway). Charlie, having realised his error throwing in with Cat and wanting to do some good, busts in on a scheming JJ and Red (Warren Oates). I assumed he had arrested them because next thing, he’s off helping Maria. But those guys show up again to give him the run-around. So what happened in the previous scene? Charlie drew a gun on them… did he arrest them? Did he take them to the station? Did they escape? Have I seen a rudely edited version of The Border? You think, ‘that’s them taken care of, he’s only got to worry about Cat and the greasy child-smuggler now…’ Then, Poof! Like magic, JJ and Red return to gang-up on the vastly outnumbered Charlie. The final confrontation doesn’t sit right with what has gone before. The sudden shift into action hero, with Charlie as ace-marksman, underwhelmingly extricating himself from an ambush seems to belong in another movie altogether. Director Tony Richardson is going to wrap up the loose ends whether you want a frilly ribbon on it or not. At least the finale does deliver a hilarious if blindingly fake shotgun in the face moment.

He could be hiding an immigrant under that hat

The performances are mostly strong with Nicholson a stand-out, much more restrained and snarling only when required, notably when confronting Cat and literally drawing a line in the dirt between them. He’s very impressive here, is Jack – weary, resigned, refocused, angry but always the convincing everyman. Keitel doesn’t quite do it for me; Cat is the everyman too, I guess he’s meant to be what Charlie could easily have become but I think Keitel underplays it. I don’t mean he should have strutted around with a ‘bad guy’ sign stuck to him; just take it up a notch. Warren Oates is okay but he isn’t given a great deal to do. The two wives are believable, Perrine and Wilcox do an admirable white trash impression, Perrine in particular is excellent. Elpidia Predator Carrillo is quietly emotive, says very little throughout (but models a fine line in phlegm!) and then it’s in Spanish without subtitles. Doesn’t matter; you understand her physically and through her expressive face.

That's gonna need more than a Band-Aid

The music is cool; the songs themselves seem to be telling the story better. There is another story in here, about Ry Cooder’s ‘broken promised land’ but the tricky questions posed about immigration policy are never answered. Director Richardson begins to ask them but then allows those issues to slide away, replaced by formulaic action. That’s a shame.


I’ll give The Border 2 Keep Out Signs out of 5.




Cheers, folk.

ThereWolf, April 2012


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About ThereWolf

I only come out at night... mostly...

13 responses to “The Border (1982)”

  1. tombando says :

    Saw this years ago by coincidence same time as Borderlands w Bronson. Have forgotten basically everything about Both. I like the review though.

    • ThereWolf says :

      Cheers, Tom.

      I gave it my best shot – but I thought the review came out a little bloodless; I was distracted from writing by my local non-league football team going into a semi-final 2nd leg on Thursday, already leading 2-1 from the 1st leg. On the half hour we went 1-0 up, looking comfortable. Then the floodlights failed; match abandoned! Gutted. Got to do it all over again this coming Saturday – so no doubt the reviewing will once again suffer as the nerves take over.

      The film hasn’t stayed with me either.

  2. Xiphos0311 says :

    Marcy and Savannah seem unaware that they are living in a wasteland (apologies to the residents of El Paso – I’m responding to the film depiction)

    No need to apologize Wolf there aren’t enough descriptive words in the English language to describe just how grotesques El Paso truly is. Still its better then mexico.

    good write up for a really bad movie.

  3. Droid says :

    Good review wolf. Not seen this one, and I like Jack, but I don’t think I’ll go out of my way to see it.

  4. Jarv says :

    I’ve never even heard of this one. Stands rubbish.

    Did they try to do the same thing that the Berg did in Schindler’s list?

    Nice review.

  5. Just Pillow Talk says :

    Never seen this and I don’t think I’ll change that anytime soon.

  6. chris says :

    This movie, for anyone fairly young (I am 48), was made some time ago, for those whom may have grown up in a world where men had already and always walked on the moon, computer age, etc., keep that in mind, as to special effects concerning the earthquake scene.

    I know it isn’t great, but it is worthy, and I think (having seen it first time in forever, two nights ago) Nicholson’s dry line (which made me laugh out loud, alone, late at night), “I never dreamed of living in El Paso”, along with the other line you paraphrase (“I just want to feel good about something I did, sometime”) are perfect and poignant bookends for what this is all about, in its subtlety.

    The American (B.S.) dream, a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage, since the days of Ike, consumerism the offshoot of killing public transportation and selling cars to a nation growing outward in every direction from Detroit’s cars, Ike’s high/freeway system, is succinctly and pithily skewered with the El Paso line by Jack. The precursor to all that strip mall hell that would ensue, the water bed, here, for the timeframe, nearly $1600 on the tag.

    Jack Telling the lovely Elpidia (Predator) the WHY of his actions, despite the language barriers (“You aren’t understanding a word I’m saying, are you?”, he says after the wanting to feel good about something he did someday line and before synopsizing in spanish, which I think the director leaves, all that spanish, purposefully, to spark an EFFORT, by us), sums up his motivation.

    Did it change anything? I, too, wondered about editing and the Warren Oates, scumbag scene, but either way, the system will of course not be interupted, is the message when they are there, plotting his demise (and yeah, must’ve spent a lot of time on the shooting range, Jack, but either way). But THE POINT, I think, is that old adage, DON’T CURSE THE DARKNESS, LIGHT A CANDLE. Jack can’t live with the stolen baby for adoption business, since his deepening debt makes him willing to entertain some of this side money the entire crew is in on. He draws that literal line in the dirt. He STICKS HIS NECK OUT, helps ONE SOUL, or TWO OR THREE. Jack with that baby in a basket (I feel like Daniel Day Lewis, There Will Be Blood–“Bastard in a basket!”), both in the shack and in the car, his smile…THAT is priceless. He WAS able to affect someone’s life, positively, amid the old familiar source of Everyman Jack’s Every ANGST filled role–The Long Reach of THE MAN.

    Jack, standing with the baby, exchanging it into Elpidia’s hands, in that very symbolic RIVER, the BORDER between these two disparate worlds (and anyone who has ever crossed into Tijuana, say, from California, first time, is left with that particular kick to the solar plexus, five feet and a Third World, no doors, windows, carpet…filth, poverty, Have and Have Not, by Grand Design, knows what I talk of)…is a perfect still shot end.

    Ry Cooder on this was fantastic. It reminds me, Wolfman, of Jack in Cuckoo’s Nest, failing to lift the heavy sink/enema hose device, to throw through the mesh/wire covered window, and escape the madhouse, he looks around at the rest of them, “Well, at least I tried, didn’t I? At least I TRIED!”.

    We all ought to try, in some small, real way, is the message. Light a candle. It is fairly hopeless, by design, by the NWO types, but…what else is there, what else, as Mick and Keith say in Street Fighting Man, can a poor boy do?

    Like your site, at least at first glimpse. Did you ever read MANWOLF in the Marvel Universe of Comics, as a kid? Astronaut, moon-rock pendant brought back…becomes the Man-Wolf.

    • ThereWolf says :

      Thanks for the comment, Chris – good stuff, mate.

      Can’t really argue with anything you’ve said there; I think the point I was trying to make with the ‘earthquake’ – and failed coz I didn’t use what I had in my notes – was not so much the FX but the sequence felt like an afterthought, y’know, like at some point during the editing Richardson said ‘we need to see the quake, not just speak of it…’ but didn’t have the money or time to deliver an effective sequence.

      I got the point; one man can make a difference. I like those kind of stories. But I get the sense the film got interfered with, so to speak. Richardson seems to want to comment extensively on immigration policy, then it’s like someone reminded him that cinema, first & foremost, should be entertaining. As I summed up in the last para, the story veers away from the serious questions and turns into an action film – and Richardson’s heart doesn’t seem to be in it at this point.

      But Nicholson’s great – I too laughed out loud at the ‘El Paso’ line (and I too am 48!) and I loved the literal drawing a line in the sand. Flicking through my notes here, I have scribbled ‘probably get more out of this on another viewing’. Hmmm, possibly…

      Cheers for liking the site, drop by any time. We’ve struggled a bit this year, only recently just started getting some ‘new’ stuff up again. Can’t say I’ve heard of MANWOLF – but then I’m not well up on the comics…

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