By Andrew Barker
The Chihuahuan desert, along which the majority of the U.S.-Mexico border lies, is an environment of almost merciless purity. Setting his film on a remote border outpost within that desert, director Greg Kwedar follows suit with “Transpecos,” an atmospheric thriller with hardly an ounce of excess fat. Tracing the deadly aftermath of a vehicle inspection gone wrong, the director wrings an impressive amount of moral inquiry out of a fairly basic premise, and even if one senses several of the plot’s screws could have been tightened a little more carefully, Kwedar still offers a finely measured, handsomely crafted debut that should attract admirers on the festival circuit.
Taking place over a single day and night, “Transpecos” opens on three border patrol agents as they begin their shift at some nameless checkpoint. The three are easily recognizable types: Hobbs (Clifton Collins Jr.) is the hard-assed, politically incorrect old salt; Davis (Johnny Simmons) is the jabber-jawed young recruit; and protagonist Flores (Gabriel Luna) is an empathetic Boy Scout type of Hispanic heritage. The film takes its time with the three in the early going as they half-interestedly go about their duties, soothing the audience into the languid, sun-blanched atmosphere.
It’s late in their shift when Davis casually waves an American driver through, but Hobbs notices something amiss and goes in for a closer look. The driver tries to take off with Hobbs’ arm still stuck in the window, Hobbs shoots him, and the trio discover a cache of cocaine in his trunk. Before they can call it in, Davis pulls his sidearm on his fellow officers. Plied with drug cartel money and cowed by threats to himself and his family, Davis had agreed to make sure the car made it through the checkpoint: Now he’s forced to beg his partners to help him make the drop-off before the rest of the smugglers notice. Hobbs, whose arm was broken in the scuffle, refuses; Flores is torn but eventually comes on board, with the disabled Hobbs riding along as a captive passenger.