By Stephanie Zacharek
By Robrt L. Pela
By Aaron Cutler
By Amy Nicholson
By Simon Abrams
By Chris Klimek
By Nick Schager
By Stephanie Zacharek
In last year's Showtime movie turned theatrical release The Believer, audiences were introduced to a hate-filled young skinhead who seemed surprisingly knowledgeable about the arcana of the Jewish people he loathed so much. Turned out he was Jewish, and ultimately had to come to grips with his Torah upbringing and intense self-loathing, finally doing so in a redemptive act. The movie was a bit too muddled to make sense of the whole inner conflict, but it got a lot of attention, and is invariably described as "controversial" by those who've seen it, adding to its credibility.
Now, writer-director-producer-star John Carlos Frey has tried to do for Mexican-Americans what The Believer did for Jews. Frey, whose only previous film role of any significance was in the 1995 Shelley Long TV remake of Freaky Friday, stars as Adam Fields, a Mexican-American Border Patrol agent who loathes illegal immigrants so much that he moonlights as a member of National Patrol, an anti-immigration militia organized by talk-show host Jack Green (J. Patrick McCormack). Green, who seems to have been inspired by activist Glenn Spencer, is fond of making scare videos that warn Americans, "You will be forced to eat beans and tortillas for the rest of your life" (as fates go, that actually doesn't sound so bad, but apparently the thought scares rednecks).
Adam hates Mexicans so much, we learn, because his mother was a prostitute and a penny-pincher. So resentful is he of her that even when she's on her deathbed, he shows up only to refuse his inheritance and kick over the prayer candles on the front lawn. To hammer home the point, Adam is also shown to have a blond Caucasian fiancée with extremely right-wing parents. Why his bride-to-be sticks with him isn't clear -- his generally hateful demeanor seems to carry over into their relationship as well. But maybe he just reminds her of daddy.
When Adam learns that the Border Patrol plans to actually begin search-and-rescue missions to keep illegal border-crossers from dying en route, his outrage gives rise to a plan. He will go south of the border, infiltrate a secret crossing, and keep a hidden camera and GPS tracking device on him at all times so that the National Patrol will be ready and waiting to capture the illegals and become heroes, all the while "proving" that the regular Border Patrol is inadequate and naive.
It wouldn't be much of a movie if things went according to plan. The group Adam hooks up with turns out to be in the service of a drug lord, and his men are far better armed than Jack Green's puny redneck militia, most of which ends up dead. Thus Adam forcibly finds himself in the drug-manufacturing business, trapped on a well-guarded plantation in the middle of nowhere, USA. It's here that the plot, hitherto engrossing, grinds to an uncomfortable halt as Adam starts to get in touch with his inner Latino self.
Frey as an actor is a compelling enough presence. That he's perfectly willing to make himself look utterly despicable is a point in his favor, as perhaps is his willingness to show butt cheek -- at least this ain't exactly a vanity project. Frey as a storyteller is good, too -- there are many nice shots in the film, and the story, so long as it stays in motion, is compelling. The editing's another story -- one or two shots seem to feature Frey magically transporting from one side of the screen to the other, but sloppy edits shouldn't be a problem if he ever gets the budget to hire a real pro.
Frey the moralizer is the problem. It's clear from reading a synopsis of the film that Frey's pro-immigration, but some of the narrative techniques he uses to push his point are too blatant as devices -- the plantation owner clearly favoring his dog over Mexicans; the cute kid who melts Adam's heart. There's also a none-too-subtle implication that every immigration-related problem in America is because of racist old white men: those who need illegal labor, and those who want to kill Mexicans. Kudos for at least making Adam an ambiguous character; by film's end he's seen a lot, but we don't know how he'll use that knowledge. But isn't it possible to oppose illegal immigration without being racist? Or support it without being an abused peasant? By showing only the extremes in the debate, Frey isn't likely to change anyone's mind on the issue, as he so obviously hopes to.
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