Set smack dab on the sun-baked U.S.-Mexico border, Transpecos is a lean-and-mean atmospheric thriller that starts off tautly but ultimately slackens as it goes along. Certainly the timing couldn’t have been better for Greg Kwedar’s directorial debut (he also co-wrote the script with Clint Bentley). After all, immigration—especially with our neighbors to the south—has been at the forefront of everyone’s minds during this divisive election season. But the evils that lurk at the dark heart of this film can’t and won’t be stopped by any wall, no matter how high it is or who’s footing the bill for it.
Opening with a brutal, deep-focus execution in the middle of the desert (with a giant monkeywrench of all things), Kwedar wants to put us in the mind of amoral tumbleweed noirs like the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple. And for the first 45 minutes or so, he succeeds in spades. The film revolves around three U.S. Border Patrol agents manning a checkpoint on a sleepy backroad. There’s Johnny Simmons as Davis, a smartass rookie learning the ropes from Gabriel Luna’s Flores, and Clifton Collins Jr. as their hardass and not-so-slightly racist superior, Hobbs. There’s a lot of talk about drug mules crossing over, but mostly their shift is made up of stopping harmless farmers with truckloads full of alfalfa. As far as Flores is concerned, the more uneventful, the better. But Hobbs seems to be hungry for action, even if he has to stir up a little trouble himself.
Then, one seemingly harmless guy in a car pulls up to their roadblock, and Simmons’ Davis waves him through. But Hobbs pulls rank and begins to mess with the driver. Shots are fired, drugs are found, and chaos ensues, pitting the three officers against one another. If it sounds like I’m dishing out spoilers, it’s all in the film’s trailer. What isn’t—and what shouldn’t be—is what happens next. And I wish I could say that it was as suspenseful as Kwedar’s set-up. Instead, Transpecos loses steam, downshifting into a meandering string of bad (and not entirely believable) decisions. The performances are all solid, especially Luna. And Kwedar’s sense of place feels so authentic that you can taste the dust in the back of your throat when the end credits roll. It’s just a shame that such a promising thriller winds up not knowing where to go, or how to get there. B-