‘Transpecos’ takes us down dirty road of drugs and the Border Patrol


The beginning of Austin director Greg Kwedar’s debut feature, “Transpecos,” is a stunner. In the first couple of minutes, we see the rotating wheels of western wind turbines, with mountains in the distance. Then we hear the voice of a man talking to either his lover or his wife, casually saying “I love you, too,” as he ends the conversation. “I have work to do.”

The man who’s talking backs his car into the film’s frame, then he gets out, opens the trunk and pulls out a slumping guy and dumps him on the ground. Next comes a shovel. Then the man goes back to the car to get a heavy pipe wrench, which he uses to bash in the head of the pleading guy on the ground.

Opening shots don’t get much more vicious than that. But the rest of “Transpecos” justifies the brutal foreshadowing. We’re dealing with the drug trade along the border, and life is nothing if not brutal.

When the scene shifts, we know trouble is in store for three men who are involved in policing that area of the world — Border Patrol agents of vastly different demeanors.

Kwedar gets standout performances from all of them.

Clifton Collins Jr. plays the hard-nosed, by-the-book agent Lou Hobbs. Gabriel Luna plays the most level-headed, Lance Flores, who is always trying to make things right. And Johnny Simmons, in a star-making turn, plays Benjamin Davis, the rookie who appears to have a lot to learn.

The three are working at a remote desert station, where they routinely stop vehicles coming into the United States from the south. They usually just wave folks through if nothing looks suspicious. But Agent Hobbs seems to think they’re being a bit too lax. And when Davis waves through a car fairly quickly, Hobbs decides to investigate.

As you might expect, the investigation doesn’t go well. And the three agents are drawn into a deadly game.

For a first-time feature director, Kwedar knows how to keep the tension going through multiple twists and turns, reminiscent of another Texas-based movie many years ago — the Coen brothers’ “Blood Simple.”

Kwedar and co-writer Clint Bentley went to the U.S. border with Mexico to do their basic research several years ago, talking with agents, hearing their stories and trying to come up with a tale that would capture not only the loneliness and isolation but also the camaraderie and the dangers.

“They told us a lot of things that they wouldn’t tell their families,” Kwedar said of his talks with agents, after “Transpecos” screened at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival. The result is a screenplay that neither portrays the border agents as saints nor as demons. They’re complicated. They’re flawed. In other words, they’re just like everyone else.

Simmons, who was born in Alabama but grew up in Dallas, says he tried to figure out the character of his rookie agent by living in an old Airstream without air conditioning during the shoot in southern New Mexico. That meant he slept under the stars on some of the hotter nights and finally realized, as he put it, that “I was looking at the same stars that people in Mexico were watching” — that the border was a human construct.

As viewers will see, there’s also another star in the making of “Transpecos” — Houston-born cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron. His wide, panoramic shots of the barren desert invoke not only beauty but also isolation — much like that felt by the agents who work there.

“The endlessness of the horizon is also a trap for those who can’t escape it,” Kwedar said.

Kwedar praised Waldron for his ability to shoot various scenes that reflect the 24 hours that play out on screen, mostly with natural light, starting with sunrise, then high noon, the sunset and the evening. In each environment, the cinematography is spot-on.

“Transpecos” won the audience award for narrative features at this year’s SXSW. If you go to see it, you’ll understand why.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Movies & TV

Exclusive: ‘Top Chef’ winner Kristen Kish will lead centerpiece restaurant at new Line ATX hotel
Exclusive: ‘Top Chef’ winner Kristen Kish will lead centerpiece restaurant at new Line ATX hotel

Austin will welcome a new face to its culinary landscape when the Line ATX hotel opens in the coming months. “Top Chef” season 10 winner Kristen Kish, who also will be recognizable to viewers of the Travel Channel’s “36 Hours,” will...
Get your ‘Hamilton’ tickets for Austin right now
Get your ‘Hamilton’ tickets for Austin right now

At last you have permission to order those “Hamilton” tickets for the once-in-a-generation musical that will stop in Austin at Bass Concert Hall for three weeks in 2019. Michael Luwoye and Isaiah Johnson in the ‘Hamilton’ national tour. Contributed by Joan Marcus The happy catch? To secure those tickets beginning...
Sylvester Stallone assures fans he is 'alive and well' after death hoax goes viral
Sylvester Stallone assures fans he is 'alive and well' after death hoax goes viral

Actor Sylvester Stallone is the victim of a death hoax. A rumor claiming that the 71-year-old actor had passed away recently surfaced on social media — and he was not happy about it. >> Read more trending news  Stallone took to Twitter to express his annoyance. “Please ignore the stupidity,” the &ldquo...
This Oregon wine will challenge your ideas about what makes a pinot noir
This Oregon wine will challenge your ideas about what makes a pinot noir

If you're looking for a wine to challenge your preconceptions of what wine should taste like, have I got one for you. Then take comfort in a luscious California chardonnay or a couple vibrant whites from Italy and southern France. If dinner is casual, a nice savory red from Spain will fit the bill. Antiquum Farm Juel Pinot Noir 2015 3 stars Willamette...
Peanut butter helps West African-style stew find the 'sweet spot'
Peanut butter helps West African-style stew find the 'sweet spot'

I am on a constant quest for exciting ways to hit what I call the "sweet spot," where delicious and healthy meet. Happily, there are endless such discoveries to be made by exploring cuisines from around the globe, and it's doubly nice when their ingredients are easily accessible as they are for this wonderful West African-inspired one-pot...
More Stories