The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - THE BORDER (1982) | The Movie Waffler

Blu-Ray Review - THE BORDER (1982)

the border 1982 film review
A border agent becomes involved in a human trafficking ring.

Review by Jason Abbey

Directed by: Tony Richardson

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Valerie Perrine, Warren Oates, Elpidia Carrillo

the border 1982 film powerhouse indicator blu-ray

An elegiac existential police drama that feels like a last hurrah of '70s Hollywood independent drama, The Border is a low key work that has plenty to recommend but lacks the anger of the movie brats in their heyday. More problematic is that what should be essentially an immigrant's story is filtered through the eyes of a border guard, Smith (Jack Nicholson), whose world weariness is only exacerbated by the avaricious consumerism of his wife Marcy (Valerie Perrine) and the plight of Maria (Elpidia Carrillo), a Mexican immigrant who is not only at risk from the Coyotes who try to sneak her in the US but also from a country that doesn’t care for its underclass and which just wants to exploit her body and baby.

Tony Richardson’s drama is a rewarding but frustrating watch. It opens with an earthquake during a wedding in Mexico, displacement and poverty forcing the inhabitants to abandon their town and seek refuge and a new life in the US. It should be an angry and coruscating piece about the plight of illegal immigrants and the border guards who are forced to police a system that patently does not work.

the border 1982 film

It would be unfair to label criticism at Nicholson; this is one of the subtlest and most underplayed performances of his modern work. The general consensus is that Stanley Kubrick forever changed his acting style after The Shining, changing him from a charismatic character actor to a scenery chewing panto dame. Here he brings pathos and a bewildered sense of shame as a man who just wants to do one good thing.

What you end up with is a film uncertain of its intentions. Is it a satire of the American consumerist dream? Exemplified by Marcy’s constant credit card purchases; the ubiquitous TV blaring; and in a touch that seems a little too sneering, the purchasing of a waterbed; the implication is she may have moved out of the trailer park but the trailer park hasn’t moved out of her.

Or is it a corruption thriller in which a good man corroded by commercialism and the need to provide the trappings of middle class living makes a decision that has him ensnared in a corrupt policing system that makes mincemeat of the undocumented immigrants to feather his own nest?

the border 1982 film

What it never feels like is Maria’s story. Carrillo is sympathetic and impressive as a woman who is exploited and taken advantage of, but she always feels like a pawn in Smith's personal drama. Whether it’s her brother being shot or her baby being kidnapped, it feels less the wrenching tragedy it should and more an opportunity for Nicholson to show his mettle. Smith isn’t what you call a typical hero; he may not be trying to fuck Maria but you are never entirely sure of his motives - Smith himself doesn’t know. Like Sylvester Stallone in Copland, there’s a sense that he can no longer bury his head under the sand and must take a stand no matter how detrimental that may be to those around him.

There is first rate support from both Harvey Keitel and Warren Oates as Nicholson’s corrupt compadres luring him into a web of murder, drugs and money, and an early film score from Ry Cooder that acts as the perfect counterpoint to Ric Waite’s lush widescreen photography (with a little help from Vilmos Zsigmond).

the border 1982 film

The Border was unfairly maligned at the time, Richardson’s direction compared to that of a TV movie. That's grossly unfair; he may not be the greatest director of actors, but the mise en scene and pacing are spot on.

Not a classic then, but a more than serviceable mid period Nicholson film. There is a sense of wearying fatality about the subject, which in the three decades since has turned into bellicose anger and stupidity about something far more complex and nuanced. In other words, a film for grown-ups.

The usual high level of extras from Powerhouse with an archival audio recording of what amounts to showbiz memorial following the director's death, sponsored by The Guardian and the NFT. There is an audio commentary by Nick Pinkerton, who brings a wealth of information about the production as well as contextual information about the director - nothing anecdotal or jovial here, rather a thoroughly researched piece of work for a format that can sometimes degenerate into chummy banter. An image gallery, trailer and subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing rounds off the on-disc extras. Not exhaustive, but well-chosen given the lack of availability of key players.

As usual there is also a 32 page booklet featuring writing from Scott Harrison, director Richardson and screenwriter Walon Green, as well as critical responses to the film at the time of its release.

The Border is on blu-ray now from Powerhouse Indicator.