Transpecos: Hill Country Film Festival review

It’s hard to imagine a more timely independent feature to hit the big screen in 2016 than Transpecos, Greg Kwedar’s dynamic and explosive thriller along the Texas-Mexico border.

With homeland security, drug lords and massive wall-building in the news, now more than ever do moviegoers need this film to help them engage in thought provoking discussion thanks to Transpecos’ cinematic world where ambiguity reigns supreme and the lines between right and wrong are blurred to the point of near invisibility.

Transpecos follows three U.S. Border Patrol officers on a seemingly routine morning shift working a mobile checkpoint on a remote desert highway. Things irreparably change for the three when a vehicle stop arouses suspicion and throws their world (quite literally) for a loop. Going much deeper into the plot would ruin several of the major twists and turns Kwedar takes viewers through and would ruin the cinematic experience for newcomers to the film.

The thriller has wowed audiences across Texas, taking home the audience award in the narrative category from this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival and Dallas International Film Festival. Most recently, Transpecos took home the Cinema Dulce (Best of Fest) award at last weekend’s Hill Country Film Festival in Fredericksburg along with a Best Director nomination for Kwedar and a Best Actor nomination for Gabriel Luna.

Thankfully, Transpecos’ massive success in such a short time on the festival circuit has led to an early distribution deal with Samuel Goldwyn Films, giving audiences nationwide an opportunity to catch the border thriller with a planned fall release.

The indie darling pairs nicely with the better known drug cartel drama Sicario starring Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro. While Transpecos certainly has to cut a couple of corners financially due to an indie budget, there’s no lacking in quality and Transpecos certainly rivals the star-studded Sicario as one of the best films about Homeland Security to come out in recent years.

The script – penned by Kwedar with co-writer Clint Bentley – paces forward with urgency and immediacy, yet never shies away from taking the time to develop nuanced, meaningful dialogue between its lead actors.

Each of Transpecos’ three leading men offers distinct layered performances in spite of the incredibly conventional framework of their U.S. Border Patrol officers.

Hobbs (Clifton Collins, Jr.) is the hard-nosed, rough around the edges yet by-the-book lead officer whose racism hinders his ability to identify with Hispanic civilians and fellow officers. Flores (Luna) represents the All-American Boy Scout struggling to rectify his compassion for others against the brutal life securing the southern border from the illegal drug trade. Davis (Johnny Simmons) is the green rookie seemingly unable to handle the pressure.

It would be easy to handle each character as limited, generic stereotypes given such formulaic broad strokes for the officers’ backstories. But Kwedar and Bentley have penned one of the decade’s best independently made scripts and the terrific performances Kwedar draws out of his three leads elevates the material even further.

Luna’s masterful turn as the conflicted Flores paces the character-driven drama within Kwedar’s otherwise tense thriller. His ability to emote both verbally and non-verbally the unease Flores feels about the actions he’s forced to take in the name of doing the right thing is nothing short of astounding.

Easily a career best performance, Collins shines in Transpecos with ruthless efficiency. While his cast mates are tasked with acting in varying degrees of subtlety, Collins’ turn as Hobbs is powerful and domineering on the borderline of scene chewing, but wholly needed to highlight the delicacy with which his fellow actors are approaching their nuanced characters.

As rookie officer Davis, Simmons perfectly portrays the ideal fish-out-of-water rookie cop, constantly nervous but confident when he has to be. There’s a tremble in Simmons’ voice that matches the shakes viewers see in Davis’ hands while holding his service weapon, a beautifully delicate touch that doesn’t become overdone as the film progresses.

Visually, Kwedar beautifully intercuts spectacular wide shots of the terrain with the regular action to provide tonal contrast in the film while the opening action sequence at the traffic stop feels impossible to pull off with limited resources.

Transpecos manages to perfectly balance its loudest, brash moments with a quiet, haunting score from Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National. Award-worthy in its own right, the simplicity of musical interludes to enhance and temper the film’s mood at the turn of a dime is reminiscent of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ magnificent score from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Remarkably, with each new scene Kwedar is somehow able to elevate Transpecos to yet another level, leaving viewers aching for more. It’s incredible to think that this is Kwedar’s first time behind the camera as a feature film director. He carefully crafts each shot and scene with the elegance of a much more experienced storyteller.

Kwedar’s film greatly benefits from gorgeous cinematography by Jeffrey Waldron, who creates a fourth character out of the open Texas border terrain. Even in a cold theater, it’s nearly impossible not to feel the heat radiating off of Hobbes, Flores and Davis as they languish in the sun while working a patrol checkpoint.

Waldron proves to be a master of light and dark, magically adjusting to the blinding yellows of the desert sun and devastatingly cool blues and blacks of nightfall on the Texas frontier with ease. Every frame makes audiences feel like they’re actually there with the performers, a rarity in independent filmmaking.

As independent features go, you can’t do much better than Transpecos, a film deserving of mainstream commercial and critical success. Thoroughly engaging from the first frame to the final credit roll, the border thriller rivals big budget studio films and proves once again that independent filmmakers can play with the big boys and win.

Note: This Cinematic Considerations review of Transpecos is one of several films reviewed following the seventh annual Hill Country Film Festival in Fredericksburg, Texas, April 28-May 1. Critic Matt Ward is a programmer for HCFF.

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