No Man's Land

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

No Man's Land
"Juan Pablo Ramirez's lush cinematography enriches the film on every level."

One feature of Donald Trump's much-hyped border wall is that it doesn't actually run along the border - it's hard to built a stable fortification on a river bank - but is, in some places, several miles north of it. his has left some farmers cut off from their land and others cut off from their country, caught in an uncertain space where they feel isolated, like the first white homesteaders ever to enter the region. In this position, attitudes harden. A family which used to leave out water for passing migrants resorts to going out with shotguns to try and scare them off. It is perhaps inevitable that an accident happens. A Mexican boy dies and then a Texan boy, not so many years older, resists his father's attempts to take the blame, crosses the border himself and goes on the run.

That second boy is Jackson, played by Jake Allyn, brother of the director. here's an openness about him which, together with his determination not to let his father take the fall, attracts some sympathy for him despite the fact that he is in part culpable - not a murderer, but certainly at fault for his recklessness. His prejudices about Mexicans stem less from malice than from a failure to think beyond what he has seen on TV, and are shared by many of his countrymen. The Allyns and co-writer David Barraza evidently hope that viewers will shed some of them as he does when his journey gives him his first real introduction to the country and puts him in a migrant's shoes.

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It's not quite the same for him, of course. Whiteness still confers a degree of privilege in most places, and people tend to assume that he's a tourist rather than worrying that he's trying to invade their land and steal their jobs or women. As it turns out there is more than enough work to be had with no questions asked, though not of a sort he ever imagined himself doing. There are also opportunities for flirtation, but this is not a romance. What clearly impresses the youth is how easy-going and friendly most people are, and how warmly he is welcomed at social gatherings.

There's a danger here of the film getting entangled in a second set of stereotypes: the Mexicans as saintly figures contrasted with those thoughtless people from north of the border. This is avoided largely by way of the variety with which we are presented, itself important to the film's message, but also through the presence of coyotes - the trafficking kind, not the furry kind - one of whom makes it his mission to track Jackson down. The father of the dead boy, touchingly played by Jorge A Jimenez, goes along, but is revenge really the right thing for him? He has his own journey to make in parallel with Jackson's, which adds complexity to both narrative and theme.

With a US marshal also on Jackson's trail, it's clear that we are headed for confrontation of some sort. The film takes its time to get there, and though its meandering is largely justified by its commitment to conveying something of the size and cultural variety of Mexico, it's still likely to irritate some viewers, especially those who have bought into the claim that this is a western. That element is there, true, but the genre tradition which hinges on the tragedy of inflexibly masculinity is not. These are characters who grow and change. Even if they end up where we expect them to, we get the sense that they are aware they can make choices.

It's a far from perfect film. Supporting characters are underdeveloped, leaving one with the sense that there was more in the writers' heads that they didn't realise they had failed to convey to viewers. The dialogue is often clumsy, sometimes outright twee. Nevertheless, given how much they have bitten off, they make a fair go of chewing it. Juan Pablo Ramirez's lush cinematography enriches the film on every level and Jake Allyn acquits himself well. If you don't mind the slow pace, it's a very watchable piece of work.

Reviewed on: 29 May 2021
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When a vigilante border patrol turns fatal, a young man flees to Mexico, discovering a place which defies his expectations.

Director: Conor Allyn

Writer: Jake Allyn, David Barraza

Starring: Jake Allyn, Frank Grillo, Jorge A Jimenez, Andie MacDowell

Year: 2020

Runtime: 114 minutes

Country: Mexico

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