Film Review: The Border (1982)


Jack Nicholson created some of his most iconic roles playing anti-establishment characters opposed to the authority. So, it was something of a novelty when he played law enforcement officer in The Border, 1982 crime drama film directed by Tony Richardson. In the film Nicholson plays Charlie Smith, US Immigration and Naturalization Service agent serving in California. The pay is low and he lives in a trailer, much to displeasure of his wife Marcy (played by Valerie Perrine). She convinces him to transfer to her home town of El Paso, where they purchase duplex and he joins US Border Patrol. He soon finds that some of his colleagues, like partner and neighbour Cat (played by Harvey Keitel), are corrupt and that they take money from smugglers that bring illegal immigrants from Mexico to USA. Charlie, due to his wife excessive spending habits, reluctantly agrees to join the scheme and look the other way. In the meantime, Maria (played by Elpidia Carrillo), young Mexican woman whose home town was devastated in earthquake, tries to cross into US with her infant son and younger brother. Charlie repeatedly meets Maria on both sides of the border and begins to like her. When Maria's son is snatched by smugglers while in US Border patrol custody, Charlie decides to bring the baby back even if it means that he would have to fight his corrupt colleagues.

Due to its subject matter, The Border is a film that would have been critics' darling and winner of prestigious festival awards, if made today. Few decades ago the audience and even critics didn't have much understanding for the film that tried to raise public consciousness about the plight of illegal immigrants – impoverished, illiterate people that repeatedly try to cross the border only to face brutal exploitation, persecution, violence and death. Looking from today's perspective, The Border is extremely bleak and depressing film; in last four decades hardly anything changed, except for politicians from both sides of the aisle cynically using it to score cheap propaganda points. Bleakness, which was even more prevalent in the original script, probably doomed the film at the box office, despite having big star like Jack Nicholson as the lead. This happened even with last-minute script intervention that turned Charlie Smith into some sort of action hero and provided happy end.

On technical level, The Border is well-made film. Tony Richardson, British director known mostly for dramas and comedies, handles this story very well and putting desert locations to good use. The Border at times looks like a good combination of typical 1970s police thriller and revisionist western. Richardson in few brief action scenes shows some ingenuity, especially in the way some villains are being killed. But the greatest asset of the film is cast, most notably very subdued Nicholson who realistically portrays a world-weary man who reluctantly makes compromises with his morality only to rediscover his conscience at the end. Mexican actress Elpidia Carrillo provides another great performance and her role later helped her being cast in some of the more memorable 1980s Hollywood films. On the other hand, Keitel and Warren Oates, who plays Charlie's corrupt superior, are wasted in one-dimensional roles. The Border is watchable, although mostly depressive film that should be best recommended to those interested to see Nicholson in some of his underrated and less known performances.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

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