By Jeremy Carr.
Immigration enforcement agent Charlie Smith (Jack Nicholson), who moves from Los Angeles to El Paso, where he joins the Texas sector’s border patrol, says he just wants to “feel good about something sometime.” But it’s not easy in his line of work, which is marred by futility, hostility, and seemingly endless frustrations on and off the job. In Tony Richardson’s The Border (1982), Charlie finds as much discontent and hopelessness at home, living in a gaudy duplex with his scatterbrained wife, Marcy (Valerie Perrine), as he does observing the forlorn immigrants along the Rio Grande. The whole disheartening prospect becomes painfully routine, until a criminal chain of events and an existential crisis dramatically alter Charlie’s already vexed perception of social consequence.
Recently released on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, with a comprehensive, informative audio commentary by Simon Abrams, The Border is set into motion by a devastating earthquake, which displaces Maria, a young Mexican mother (Elpidia Carrillo), and prompts her pitiless trek from the rubble, through the sweltering desert, toward the volatile United States border. Although he takes a particular interest in Maria’s plight – for reasons of private consideration and in the service of the film’s need for a personified immigrant representation – Charlie grows increasingly disheartened by the fact she is but one of many migrants prone to the revolving door of detention, processing, release, and return. Further decaying the morally ambiguous process are the unlawful misdeeds of those on the ostensible “right” side of the law, like Harvey Keitel’s Cat, a coworker and unsavory friend of Charlie’s, who engages in a succession of manipulative, underhanded schemes for personal profit.
Richardson, an Oscar winner for Tom Jones (1963) and director of the even better A Taste of Honey (1961) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), presents a compelling if cursory glimpse at the border region’s complex maneuverings, from the day-to-day struggles for survival to the peddling of everything from drugs to babies. And with cinematography by the versatile Ric Waite, who manned the camera for such quintessential films of the 1980s as 48 Hours (1982), Footloose (1984), and Cobra (1986), The Border projects a scuffed, depleted setting, laced with a dusty coarseness and an inexorable heat that permeates the entire film. Playing against the bluesy, reverberating music of Ry Cooder, the presence of virile acting icons like Nicholson, Keitel, and less present though no less striking, Warren Oates, gives the film a corresponding, embodied intensity. As Charlie goes through the motions with the sort of shattered exasperation Nicholson does so well – fed up with his Hungry Man TV dinners and his frequently crude wife’s frivolity: “I married a banana,” he proclaims – the generally low-key, dispirited patrolman can’t help but act out in anger (again, in characteristic Nicholson fashion). Ruminating on his faded dreams and thwarted ambitions, however, Nicholson’s moments of underplayed introspection yield a more absorbing sense of profound rage and subtly fermenting compassion.
With its dramatic focus split between Charlie’s domestic and occupational disappointments, his weariness concerning consumerist absurdity and prevailing corruption, The Border’s rather slack storyline (script by Deric Washburn, Walon Green, and David Freeman) offers up a desperate dichotomy within national and cultural factions, a dichotomy yet linked by despair, danger, and the desire to make a living. But there is likewise a mutual resentment, sprouting from long-gestating seeds of contempt and a willful lack of understanding. The consequences are calamitous, the treatment is often degrading, and the more violent results are brutal indeed; Charlie is so affected by one particularly gruesome discovery, he can’t help but vomit at the sight and stench.
Still, current expectations concerning immigration – so toxic, contentious, and embellished in the year 2019 – will no doubt diminish The Border’s relatively tactful handling. While it’s a fierce picture to be sure, it lacks the sting of a thoroughly intensive exposé, favoring the impression of a sociopolitical primer and, agreeably enough, presenting a refreshingly heartfelt depiction of immigrant anxiety. Alongside the situation’s sweeping severity, as immigrants are largely shown to be hardworking people enduring deplorable conditions in their quest for a better life (day workers receive passing acknowledgement of their valuable labor), someone like Marcy, with her material infatuations (swimming pools, sofa covers, etc.) persists as an overly obvious counterpoint to the practical, imperative concerns of someone like Maria, which may be why Charlie appreciates the latter’s efforts and gravitates toward her wellbeing. Although The Border clearly has the best of intentions, its aims can appear somewhat uncertain or at least reserved, but this does not make its significance, the quality of its roundly exceptional performances, or its affecting portrait of individual disenchantment any less laudable.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press.