The Movie Waffler SXSW 2023 Review - DEADLAND | The Movie Waffler

SXSW 2023 Review - DEADLAND

Deadland review
A US Border Patrol agent becomes involved in a cover-up, only to find he's dealing with strange forces.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Lance Larson

Starring: Roberto Urbina, McCaul Lombardi, Julieth Restrepo, Kendal Rae, Luis Chavez, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Manuel Uriza, Chris Mulkey, Chris White, Dave Maldonado

Deadland poster

Some filmmakers bang out an acclaimed short and are immediately afforded the chance to direct a feature. Such cases are rare however, and for most it's a long slog. Lance Larson directed his first short as far back as 1999 and has only now made his feature debut. I'm glad Larson stayed on what was no doubt an often frustrating path, as Deadland, which he co-wrote with Jas Shelton, suggests he's an exciting talent.

With its sweaty American SouthWest setting and Border Patrol protagonists, Deadland recalls 1980s thrillers like The Border and Flashpoint, but it's also a ghost story, a tale of fathers, sons and (un?)holy spirits.

Deadland review

A routine call leads half American, half Mexican Border Patrol agent Angel Waters (Roberto Urbina) to a narrow but treacherous stretch of the Rio Grande known to be a crossing point for Mexican migrants. There he finds one such migrant (Luis Chávez) attempting the deadly crossing. Despite Angel's shouted warnings, the man persists in trying to cross and is swept downstream. By the time Angel reaches him he appears to have drowned, which makes for a hell of a surprise when he emerges from a body bag in the back of Angel's 4x4. The migrant whispers a plea to be brought to El Paso, but Angel takes him to a remote Border Patrol outpost and leaves him in the hands of two of his colleagues – xenophobic loose cannon Ray (McCaul Lombardi) and by-the-book Salomé (Julieth Restrepo).

Angel heads home and finds his pregnant wife, nurse Hannah (Kendal Rae), has let an elderly stranger into their home. The bedraggled man, Ignacio (Manual Uriza), claims to be Angel's long lost father, and is carrying a photo of Angel's mother. He mumbles what seems to be nonsensical homilies about trees and roots, which Angel refuses to pay attention to. Angel wants nothing to do with the man, even, or perhaps especially if he really is his father, but the kindly Hannah talks him into allowing him to stay awhile. When Angel receives a phone call from Salomé, his world is instantly turned upside down.

Deadland review

It's difficult to say any more about where this leads without ruining some neat twists and turns, but suffice to say it evolves into a tense thriller with supernatural elements. Angel allows himself to compromise his position for the sake of his co-workers, and the three commit an act that's both immoral and unprofessional. When a pair of Internal Affairs officers (Chris Mulkey, Julio Cesar Cedillo) arrive in town looking for Ignacio, whom they claim fled a nearby institution, it leads Salomé and Ray to grow increasingly paranoid about whether Angel really has their back or if he might grass them to save his own skin. What they don't realise is that Angel now has two major worries – covering up his colleague's deed and hiding Ignacio from IA and ICE.

Deadland is the sort of movie you watch and immediately think "I didn't think they made them like that anymore." It depends who "they" are. If "they" is Hollywood, then yes, they don't. While a movie like Deadland would have been a wide release 30-40 years ago, perhaps even as recent as the late 2000s when the likes of No Country for Old Men could play to large crowds, now such movies disappear into the VOD void, reliant on the likes of yours truly to drum up interest. It really does feel like a product of a past era though, a genre piece populated by three-dimensional characters and with twists and turns that keep you on the edge without getting in the way of tension and suspense. Larson has a classical, unshowy style of direction that harks back to the heyday of John Carpenter and Walter Hill – his camera is always in the right place but never draws attention to itself.

Deadland review

This style of filmmaking allows the viewer to focus on what really drives movies – actors. Even in a 1980s genre classic like The Thing that's filled with outlandish set-pieces, it's the performances and characters that stick in your mind. That's the case here, as despite how small their roles are, everyone on screen feels like someone who has lived a full life before the camera began rolling. Like their director, much of the cast have put in a lot of time in small roles in movies and TV shows on both sides of the Mexican-American border, and you get a real sense of a group of actors seizing a chance to finally become stars. Urbina, Restrepo, Rae and Lombardi are all new to me, but watching them inhabit their characters I felt like I was watching well-established movie stars. Veteran Mulkey is so good here as a sinister shit-eating IA agent that it may kick off the sort of late-career revival his Twin Peaks co-star Michael Parks enjoyed prior to his passing in 2017.

Slap a Ry Cooder score on the soundtrack and edit out the smartphones and you have a movie that feels like a timeless gem. But there's something very modern about its underlying themes of identity. Raised by his white mother in his Mexican father's absence, you get the impression Angel took the job of Border Patrol as an act of vengeance against the father he never knew. The Mexican Salomé's assiduous approach to her job seems motivated by a feeling that she has to constantly prove which side of the fence she's on, something manipulated by Mulkey's IA agent. The closing scenes, in which the supernatural sub-plot is skilfully brought to the fore in a manner that never detracts from the general air of gritty realism, suggests that America's migrant community may always be haunted by roots they can't escape.

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