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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
ThereWolf, April 2012