DIFF Review: ‘TRANSPECOS’ – A Compelling Border Film


Bill Graham // Film Critic

Director: Greg Kwedar
Cast: Johnny Simmons, Gabriel Luna and Clifton Collins Jr.

Fear of the cartels has been a narrative device in border-town films for quite a while and it plays a huge role in the latest film to make waves on the festival circuit, TRANSPECOS. Directed by Greg Kwedar who is making his feature-length debut as director, the narrative follows three border patrol agents that get mixed up in a cartel drug run that has grave consequences. The film explores the type of personalities that are attracted to this type of job and how perilous it can be.

The film features the harsh landscapes of the Mexico/US border area and has a standout performance by Gabriel Luna that carries the film. The three agents are the skilled tracker, Flores (Luna); the excited newcomer, Davis (Johnny Simmons); and the seen-it-all veteran, Hobbs (Clifton Collins, Jr.). Each of them brings a different mentality to the job that often transitions from absolute boredom, intense concentration, and jovial encounters with the familiar faces that pass through.

Of course this wouldn’t make much of a film if it was just them at the border crossing, inspecting vehicles. Thankfully TRANSPECOS picks up the pace significantly within the first 15 minutes and before we know it we are knee-deep in a cartel conspiracy that involves the lives of one agent’s family and how they have to respond and deal with it. Mounds of cocaine are found and it becomes apparent that they will have to go against their own morals to deliver it after a threat is issued. It’s a harrowing reality that the film paints. One where those that cross the cartel have little recourse, even amongst witness protection and law enforcement. Death finds even the most cautious and paranoid.

Johnny Simmons, Gabriel Luna and Clifton Collins Jr. star in TRANSPECOS. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Johnny Simmons, Gabriel Luna and Clifton Collins Jr. star in TRANSPECOS. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

The result is a deep dive into the Schrodinger’s cat theory where you don’t dare cross the cartel because their myth is one you are unwilling to test. The way that the agents work together is fascinating to watch. There are radio signals that have to be relayed and checkpoints to cross that each present a potential pitfall. As they venture further into Mexico the cartel threat grows. It’s always looming. No one they speak to seems to be trustworthy. The few night sequences are truly terrifying as anything can be lurking.

The film picks up momentum and makes an effort towards being a believable narrative at the hour mark and it’s just when things are getting tense that we reach the end. It’s fitting but rarely achieves the grandiose and lofty nuance you can tell they are striving for. For a feature debut, it still manages to be impressive in the way it uses limited resources to make a compelling narrative. One can imagine everything being shot within a five-mile stretch.

There’s no debate about border control and the cartels to be had during the film. Everything is happening so quickly that desperation and staying ahead of the curve is all that matters. And yet, it never fully gives in to those themes. Davis, specifically, doesn’t quite seem at the bare ends of sanity to be making some of the decisions he does. But even amidst the failings, it’s still a worthy journey.

TRANSPECOS’ release is TBA.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.