I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Bill Graham // Film Critic
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.
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.