‘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.

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