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BORDER, THE(director: Tony Richardson; screenwriters: David Freeman/Walon Green/Deric Washburn; cinematographer: Ric Waite; editor: Robert Lambert; music: Ry Cooder; cast: Jack Nicholson (Charlie Smith), Harvey Keitel (Cat), Valerie Perrine (Marcy), Warren Oates (Red), Elpidia Carrillo (Maria), Shannon Wilcox (Savannah), Manuel Viescas (Juan), Jeff Morris (J.J.); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Edgar Bronfman; Universal Studios Home Video; 1982)
“There’s nothing very memorable except for Nicholson’s subdued brooding performance.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

English gringo Tony Richardson (“Tom Jones”) directs this timely story of illegal immigration by Mexicans and keeps the spicy story bland, as it touches on many personal tragic events, the daily hardships faced by the “wetbacks” and corruption among the lawmen and the Mexican hustlers. The topic might be timely but the presentation is trite and furthermore it has the look of a made-for-television movie. Writers David Freeman, Walon Green and Deric Washburn were inspired by a series of Los Angeles Times articles about illegal aliens from Mexico, and tried to give the film weight by comparing the broken dreams on both sides of the Tex-Mex border. If you still didn’t get its heavy-handed message there’s a song sung by Freddy Fender over the credits that’s written by Ry Cooder, John Hiatt and Jim Dickinson that tells you everything you wanted to know about the pic.

There’s a land So I’ve been told Every street is paved with gold And it’s just across the borderline … And when you reach the broken promised land Every dream slips through your hand You’ll lose much more than you ever hoped to find.

Jack Nicholson as the guilt-stricken Charlie Smith, gives it his best shot as a burned-out nice guy United States Border Patrol Guard stationed in El Paso, Texas. But the film is flat and uninvolving, and never draws us emotionally into its unconvincing liberal angst. The film presents a number of hot button issues but never answers them, deciding instead to remain on safe ground by keeping things murky, disjointed, non-controversial and opting to close as an action pic. It leaves one mostly with the impression that the soft-hearted Nicholson character is not suited for his job of detaining illegals more than making a big statement about the wide holes in America’s immigration policy and the policy’s hypocrisy.

After 11 years of marriage to Texas-born bimbo wife Marcy (Valerie Perrine), border guard Charlie has no problem leaving his dumpy trailer existence in LA behind as his wife coaxes him into transferring to El Paso, Texas–her hometown. Marcy hits white trash heaven as she falls in love with her shiny new duplex out in the desert and dedicates herself to making this their dream house even if they can’t afford it. Buying everything on the installment plan, which leaves the family without any spending money and leads Charlie to take up the bribery offer by fellow border guard Cat (Harvey Keitel), his next door neighbor married to Marcy’s best friend from high school Savannah (Shannon Wilcox). Being on the take, Charlie allows certain illegals to cross the border without an arrest as they work as day laborers on nearby farms and businesses. The smuggling operation run by his superiors soon upsets Charlie; he can’t deal with a baby stolen, with the intention of selling it for adoption, from a wetback Madonna (Elpidia Carrillo) while she was placed in detention. She’s someone Charlie wants to help to ease his conscience. Charlie does so without asking anything in return, but this puts him at odds with his superiors and the tale then goes down a well-worn familiar path. Once this corruption tale gets set in motion, the immigration problems never again become the primary reasons for the film–but fade quietly in the background.

There’s nothing very memorable except for Nicholson’s subdued brooding performance of a guy left twisting in the wind from dealing with his mush-brained consumer driven wife, his snaky amoral colleagues and the everyday stink coming from the squalor of living without mucho dineros in the land of milk and honey.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”