SXSW 2016: TRANSPECOS Provides Taut Thrills and Telling Insight

Being from South Texas originally, every time I make the trek back from a visit home, I naturally have to pass the border checkpoint on my way back to Austin. As I wait in the line amongst my fellow motorists, I try and check my phone before remembering there is no service and then proceed to crank up the music and have a karaoke moment until my turn comes and I am moved along and continue on my way. Never once in all those times did I ever actually stop and consider how much these men and women risk each time they show up for work, let alone even contemplate that they exist in a world all their own, which very few can ever hope to understand. Suffice it to say, that’s all changed following the SXSW premiere of the border thriller Transpecos.

The film centers on three border patrol agents at their desert checkpoint. Agents Flores (Gabriel Luna) and Hobbs (Clifton Collins Jr.) find themselves saddled with the still wet-behind-the-ears Davis (Johnny Simmons) as they sweat out their shift in the never ending heat. When what seems like a run-of-the-mill car check quickly goes south, the three agents find themselves plunged into a situation which could very well cost them their lives.

As a thriller, Transpecos is a welcomed breath of fresh air within the genre. Being an avid lover of all kinds of thrillers, it naturally becomes easy to spot the conventions. This guy is going to do this and that. Such and such will eventually happen. With Transpecos however, the mechanics of the plot are so sharp and finely tuned, that calling out such elements becomes virtually impossible. Director Greg Kwedar and screenwriter Clint Bentley have crafted a film which sweeps you up with solid characterization before unleashing a number of unexpected twists in the plot. The film’s setting helps immensely, with the vast (and gorgeously shot) desert landscapes acting as the characters’ virtual captor, leaving them trapped and helpless throughout.

Fundamentally, Transpecos is about the world of border patrol agents and all that they must risk and sacrifice upon entering into it. It’s a world where the rules of the everyday simply do not apply. Every stranger who comes your way is a potential enemy, there is no opportunity to let down your guard and your life is in danger from the moment your shift begins. The interplay between the three characters in Transpecos is also so incredibly familial and greatly speaks to the undeniable brotherhood that exists in such a world. In a way such a bond is inevitable. The field asks so much of an individual that the fact that a bond would develop with others making the same sacrifices and feeling the same fears, regardless of differing ideologies, is almost totally natural and expected.

The consequence of existing in such as world and how it transforms the individual over time is so beautifully illustrated in the three main characters and their respective stages. In Davis there is the kind of young idealism which shows he hasn’t been at the job long enough to really feel its permanent effect. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the hard-nosed Hobbs is as jaded and cynical as can be after having survived years of loyal service to the agency. Caught somewhere in the very large, gray middle is Flores, who carries his belief in the honor of his profession right next to an unflinching caution with regards to every situation he encounters.

It’s impossible to describe just how remarkable and dynamic each of the three leads are in their roles. Luna is so quietly electrifying as Flores, an individual consumed by conflict, whose love for both his culture and the brotherhood of his field, never leaves him. Simmons makes for a highly skilled scene partner, giving what is perhaps the film’s most heartbreaking and tortured performance. Finally, being blessed with the flashiest role in Transpecos, Collins Jr. has never been better as Hobbs, who mixes a quick wit and a steely reserve with an underlying humanity. Going into the film, I was certainly familiar with many of the highlights from each of the actors’ long and varied careers, yet nothing prepared me for how much each of these roles gave them to play and the places where they took their characters.

There’s a final scene toward the end of Transpecos which, to go into great detail on would be revealing far too much. However, suffice it to say that it is perhaps one of the film’s most touching moments and truly speaks to the personal conflict and sacrifice made by those who perhaps never expected to be faced with such decisions. It was an honest and touching moment where ideas of culture, loyalty and brotherhood were all swimming around at once. My hope is that people discover Transpecos and recognize it as both a taut thriller as well as a look into a world many know close to nothing about. As for me, I’ll be looking at those specific individuals just a little more differently the next time I drive through the checkpoint.

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the author

Frank Calvillo lives in Austin, TX and has been in love with movies ever since his father showed him some Three Stooges shorts when he was five years old. Today he loves all kinds of film, regardless of era, country, budget or genre. He believes every film has an audience and is at least one person's favorite movie. His ultimate goal is to write a script for his boyhood crush, Michelle Pfeiffer. Twitter: @frankfilmgeek