Transpecos is the impressive début feature from writer/director Greg Kwedar and co-writer Clint Bentley. The atmospheric indie, set on a remote outpost in the sweltering Texas desert, follows three border patrol agents during the deadly aftermath of a seemingly typical vehicle stop. The lead characters are prime examples of movie archetypes at their best in that they feel immediately familiar yet never cliché. Clifton Collins Jr. plays the senior agent Hobbs, who possesses all the swagger, coarseness, and unflappability we expect in a big-screen law enforcement officer. Johnny Simmons plays the opposite prototype Davis, a rookie agent who doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut. Gabriel Luna embodies the picture’s heart and soul. He plays Flores, the only agent of Hispanic heritage, who is sometimes aligned and sometimes at odds with each of his partners. Kwedar and Bentley spend just the right amount of time setting these guys up before anything out of the ordinary goes down, so by the time the action kicks into high gear (and it kicks in fast) we have a clear understanding of each man.
The personal, low-pay-grade perspective of Transpecos distinguishes it from the many recent films dealing with criminal activity around the porous border between Mexico and the United States. This movie is much more a character study and an exploration of a place (the vast Texas desert) than a political screed. The ways that the simple central conflict illuminate the nuanced moral differences among the three leads is far more thought provoking than the heavy-handed statements found in studio pictures like the Oscar winning Traffic (2001), Oliver Stone’s Savages (2012), and even the previous year’s compelling but overwrought Siccario. The dialogue crackles with authenticity, and the simple but life-threatening dilemma these three men face swiftly places us in their shoes, wondering what we would do if put in the same situation.
The probing quality of the photography both heightens and hinders experience of Transpecos. Cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron captures the dry desert heat and envelops us into the environment these agents inhabit. Every time Kwedar and editor Alan Canant cut to a shimmering wide shot we’re reminded of the seemingly unlimited remoteness of the Mexican boarder. These expansive vistas also brilliantly capture the passage of time, as one long, slow, ordinary day transforms into an intense, nail-biter of a night. But Transpecos also bears the calling card of too many first-time filmmakers in that most of its shots are tight close-ups that dodge frenetically around, when wider, locked-down coverage would be more powerful. The majority of the picture is comprised of rapidly cut, handheld, long lens camerawork that intentionally shakes and whips from one focal point to another. Fortunately, each actor knows exactly how to capitalize on this type of shooting; making his most nuanced physical choices precisely when the camera lands on his face. Yet the awareness (both the actors’ and ours) of the camera keeps us from completely entering the world of these border agents to the extent that could have been possible given the talent on display here.
The use of hyperactive camera work to add visceral intensity to a cinematic narrative usually comes off as the visual equivalent of actors “chewing the scenery.” And just as the best movie stars discover that less is more as they get older, great movie directors usually figure out that waving the camera around is unnecessary when a script is already as taut, tense, and exciting as this one. Whether Kwedar outgrows this practice or makes it part of his signature, he is clearly a filmmaker with an exciting future. Transpecos is a riveting, intelligent thriller that should be a breakout for its director and its three distinctive stars.